Thursday 22 October 2020

Staffordshire: The Birch Challenge marathon race recap

I had a very good feeling about today's race from the outset.  The style and tone of the emails.  The online race briefing.  The description of the aid station.  The fact that it was the winner of “Best Rated Off-Road event 2019” from RaceCheck.  The fact that I didn't have to wear my vest or worry about GPX because it was loops of a 5k course and the race director was happy for you to just go to your car between laps. So obviously I set up a little aid station in my boot:

Featuring: water, electrolytes, Coke, tea, coffee, cheese sandwiches, pretzels, melon, banana, flapjack, jelly sweets, Dolly mixtures, Mars bar, caffeine bullets (no I did not eat all of that)!

Then on top the weather forecast the night before was A-MA-ZING!

It doesn't get better than that.  And I think I deserve it after my last two races! I was due to start at 8:45 so I got up at 05:30 and drove the 90ish minutes down there.  
Now technically the government Covid advice is to "avoid travel outside Tier 3" however that's advisory rather than legally binding.  Personally I consider being inside my car (on my own) and running in a forest (at least 2m away from others) extremely low risk activities.  I am far more at risk going to work in a hospital than I am doing this.  Plus with the Covid second wave I need to safeguard my mental health, and running races is what I do to keep myself sane.  I know I haven't got Covid because I'm on the Oxford vaccine trial and do a swab test every week, so I felt confident I wasn't putting others at risk.
Covid measures at the race were very strict which is a good thing and meant everyone felt safe.  I told a few people I was from Liverpool and nobody thought I was a reckless Covid-spreader.  Phew.
Here I am before the race started.  The last bit of the drive to Cannock Chase just as dawn broke was exceptionally beautiful and I was so so happy to be there. 
Here's a picture of the start line about 5 minutes before the start.  The race is on Forestry Commission land so had to be limited to 30 people under their rules.

As soon as we set off, it was clear it was going to be a beautiful day.  The official photographer took this one of me just as I started - this was one of those lovely races where all the pics were free - image credit to Nick @nicksphotogallery

At the beginning I thought seeing other runners was going to be short-lived as we'd soon be spread out over the course.  In fact, because the route looped back on itself, by lap 7 I recognised pretty much every other competitor and there was much waving and friendly 'well done's.  The route was really beautiful.  The autumnal colours combined with lakes around every corner, little streams and blue skies meant for a stunning setting.

Every corner I went round had another beautiful view.  This was just after a U turn which I managed to miss on lap 5 because I was talking ... luckily I realised quite quickly as the signage was great.
As I came down the hill towards this lake I was reminded of Rutland Water and some of the lovely lakes there, although the weather today was somewhat nicer than that day - which was only about a year ago... crazy.

The loop was just under 6k, and at around 5k there was a river crossing.  I don't think I've ever done a race before where you had to run over stepping stones?

At the end of the first lap I went to the car and ditched my jacket and gloves and had some water, then headed out for round 2.  Quite quickly I got chatting to Dan and Rob, who are both regular marathon runners.  It transpired they had done the same race yesterday as well.  Both are chasing numbers - Rob told me this was his 72nd marathon and Dan was already well into the hundreds.

As usual, we compared races.  It turned out they knew lots of the characters from my other race reports - Lucas the chip shop dude from Seven Deadly Sins, Tim the jogler from Rutland marathon.  Dan had run Escape from Meriden (chained edition!) and told me some hilarious stories including being stopped by the police. I told him the dreaded swamp story from Convergence.  A lap passed without me noticing.  We saw another runner in a New Forest marathon t-shirt and told them about the signs and the Garmin stand and the parking.  I wondered if the other dude had hated it as much as me but reflected that if I said anything, he'd probably say, "Oh that's my favourite race and I've run it 10 times".  Dan said, "Or he might says, "I'm the race director"..." which made me laugh.  The furnace of faux pas beckons...

We talked about Covid.  Rob said he thought it was better now because people could be quite disgusting what with all the snot rockets and spitting.  Dan said,  mock-horrified, "You didn't have to tell everyone though"!  I laughed.  We walked up the hills.  We talked about other races I could potentially do in the Midlands. and Rob mentioned Big Bear Events do races in Leicestershire and Warwickshire also.  Another 5k went by.  The official photographer took this - check out that great social distancing ;-)

At the aid station I had my first mince pie of the year.

Somewhere on the next lap I lost Rob and Dan.  I put my headphones on and just trundled round, chatting to people occasionally and just enjoying the beautiful scenery.  As usual I had made little to no effort to find out anything about the course so the several hills had come as a surprise.  Pictured here they don't look too bad but there was 800m ascent overall!
At the end of lap 5 there was a minor medical emergency - a guy came into the aid station bleeding.  The race director got him a bandage but didn't have anything to clean the wound so I went and found him some wipes and Savlon from my first aid kit in the car.  He was fine, just a bit shaken up.  I think he must've had a fall on the muddy bit near the end.  Most of the course was alright but there were just a few bits where it'd got wet and churned up by bikes.
On the sixth lap I veered off course to try to find somewhere to go to the loo.  As I stepped into the more densely wooded forest, I was surprised to see a lone female walker coming the other way.  I said, "Oh, hello... just looking for the Ladies," and she said, "that's where I've just been!"  We both laughed and once she'd headed out of the woods I used the really quite lavish loo:

Afterwards I ran down the hill and passed her.  She turned and smiled, and maybe I imagined it but we had a bit of a shared "girl power" moment, both of us being single women doing our fitness thing, and she called out, "Have a nice day!" and I said, "You too!" and we both smiled.  It put me in a good mood for the rest of the lap. 

A few more photos from later in the day when the sun came out again:

Having a super-happy moment in the sunshine on lap 6!  Earlier at the aid station I'd overheard a girl say, "I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be than here, doing this, today" and that totally sums up the feeling.  I'd got a 'free' day off work (made up of all the unplanned overtime I've done lately), I was out in beautiful woods, doing a marathon that counts towards my challenge, feeling great and the sun was shining.  Epic.
The lake view was even more stunning than earlier so I took another picture and then spotted this gorgeous tree at the far end so took a pic of that too.
I got to the end and picked up my medal, beer and flapjack.  I've stopped drinking again so I daresay Mattgreen will get to drink this beer at Christmas.  I'd forgotten, but when I signed up you could opt out of a medal and goody bag in exchange for planting a tree.  I obviously couldn't do that (I need the medal to make it count for the challenge and who turns down flapjack?). But there was a sign on the table saying I'd paid extra to plant a tree as well.  I had totally forgotten this but it was a nice bonus at the end.

A day later I got an email from Trees Not Tees regarding my tree (!) which is now planted somewhere near Glasgow.  I generally am strongly in favour of trees instead of t-shirts and also instead of medals in any race shorter than a marathon.  I definitely think being given the option is a good idea.  I hope more races start doing this in future, especially large races where there's a lot of waste.

I wanted a finish line photo but couldn't get the angle right for a selfie so the kind man at the aid station put gloves on so he could take this for me with my phone.  I bought a reusable race cup as they had some nice ones and waited to watch Dan and Rob finish. 

Sadly just before I left I checked my email and got a notification that my next marathon (meant to be on Sunday) had just been cancelled due to Covid.  Arrrggghh! 

Sunday 4 October 2020

Isle of Wight: Isle of Wight marathon race recap

After yesterday's 50k trail race, I allowed myself a bit of a lie-in before today's marathon.  The race was fortunately not due to start until 11.30am - I think this is because Mainlanders need time to catch the ferry over, if they didn't come the night before.  Incidentally you get a 50% discount off the ferry if you enter the race, which was actually very generous as the ferry was quite expensive - so thank you WightLink!

I'd made arrangements to start at 11am, as there was a slightly earlier start for people who thought they would take longer than 5 hours 15 minutes, but no longer than 6 hours, which was the cutoff.  Normally I can run a  road marathon like this a lot faster than that, but after yesterday, I didn't want to take any chances.  

My legs were stiff but not too bad so after some breakfast we headed off to the race start.  The race had lots of very strict rules including that spectators weren't permitted at the start or finish so I had to ditch Ian outside the venue.  Ian was not impressed... his assessment of the IoW is that they are all, "Brexit-loving Tory-voting miserable boring bastards"... No comment!

I left it until the last possible minute to go in and after about 2 minutes of huddling under an awning we were called to the start line by the race director shouting "will the slow group please follow me" - charming.  I overheard a girl say "Will the substandard runners please follow me" in quite a sarcastic voice.

The weather forecast was equally as grim as yesterday, only now with strong winds as well.  It was cold and raining from the very start and pretty much stayed that way all day.

The race director came over to the start and started making random announcements.  He was going on about keeping 2m apart and about marshalls and things, but I didn't care because I was freezing and just wanted to get going.  After five minutes, we were allowed to get started, and one row at a time set off around the field.

Not long after leaving race HQ I took this picture because I could see the sea!  Little did I know that I would barely see it again for the rest of the race.

 The race soon left Cowes and headed out onto the "quieter roads on the Western side of the island" according to the race blurb.  Only the roads weren't that quiet.  Maybe because of Covid, or maybe because of the rain, but everyone and their dog seemed to be out.  For reasons I will never understand, we were instructed to keep left at all times, in direct breach of the Highway Code.  This led to some terrifying overtaking manuevres:

And some pretty hairy left turns where I had to run almost on the central line and pray that no cars came speeding round the bend not expecting me to be in the middle of the road - eek.

The other added element of "excitement" was that this race had an 'extra' cutoff of 3 hours 15minutes at 15 miles.  I would only just have made that yesterday and that was making me twitchy, so I set myself the target of making the cutoff and worry about the rest later.  I also made a deal with myself that I would walk ALL the hills as I needed to conserve my legs for when the going got tough.  The other advantage of the never-ending rain was that I got cold if I stopped, so I ran almost continuously all day.

This picture was taken at around 8k, when the frontrunners overtook me (they are just ahead of that red car) - they had managed to catch up their 30 minute headstart already.  Most of the people in this race seemed to be very serious road runners - not my usual environment I have to say.  Lots of people in shorts and vests despite the conditions.  The winner finished in 2 hours 28 minutes which is pretty serious if you ask me.

Within the first 10k, my phone was already playing up.  Wet fingers, wet screen, wet clothes.  Pictures are blurry and not long after became completely impossible.  Which was a big shame because somewhere around 10k I saw a lady cheering and clapping the runners from the gate outside her house... whilst dressed in a wetsuit, snorkel and flippers.  Honestly it was hilarious, I really wish I'd taken a photo!

Over the course of this race, I saw more roadside stands than I have in any other race I've run.  I started to wish I'd brought a rucksack!  The list, not exclusive, included: apples, honey, eggs, logs, carrots, beetroots, plants, manure, kindling, pumpkins.

Ian, meanwhile, was driving round the island trying to find me.  Here's a picture he took of me.  

 Unfortunately another rule in the race briefing was: 

There is a UK Athletics rule that forbids external assistance so I'm asking you not to have supporters handing you drinks etc. as this is perceived as an advantage (we're also dissuading supporters from attending and given the extra restrictions recently in place we should keep any on course to a minimum).

This seems completely ridiculous to me.  I've run a lot of marathons and even the three World Majors I've done didn't enforce this.  Yesterday Ian literally provided me with a full change of clothes halfway round.  I was so disbelieving of this that I actually went to UKA and looked it up.  Sadly, that rule does exist, though just about all races turn a blind eye.  Ian's role was therefore limited to words of support and friendly waves.  Once or twice, he pretended to kiss me but instead stuffed jelly sweets into my mouth at the last second.  UP YOUR BUM stupid rules!

At some point around 11 miles or so, the route headed out along a narrow path.  There was sea on the right and a kind of marshland on the left.  At this point, the wind and rain really picked up, and thrashed across the path, buffeting runners around.

I was being overtaken by lots of people along this section.  I remember one girl went past, then stopped and screamed back at her teammate, "GET A MOVE ON!!" and then kept running.  I wondered if her team mate found that motivational.  He stumbled past me a few minutes later, in a shirt that matched hers. I felt quite sorry for him really! 

Time passed quickly and I was easily going to make the cutoff, but I refused to take my foot off the pedal until I got there.  I stopped to take a picture, which proved difficult even with a tissue to dry the rain, but as you can see I got there with 30 minutes to spare.  This left me 3 hours 15 minutes to do 11 miles, which I could probably do even if I walked most of it, so I could breathe a sigh of relief at this point.  I rewarded myself by permitting myself to stop for a wee which I'd wanted to do for the last hour.

The next time I saw Ian, he had brought me a bottle of Coke.  I wanted the Coke very very badly, but I also didn't want to get disqualified, so I pretended to stretch/waited for runners to go round the corner/Ian attempted to blockade the view while I sneakily huffed down Coke half crouched against the car.  I felt like a drug addict or an alcoholic.  Great!  

It did the job though and powered me through the next few miles.  I stopped to take this picture at one of the aid stations.  I need to mention that there were soooo many marshalls at this race and they were without exception really friendly and encouraging.  The weather was so horrifically awful and you get really cold marshalling because you don't have the benefit of running to keep warm.  These ladies were both a bit older than me but so so kind and friendly, clapping everyone, handing out water, smiling.  They were touched I thanked them so profusely, but they were the real stars of the show.  In fact there were lots of people who'd come out, huddled under doorways and umbrellas to clap the runners.  I was genuinely surprised and touched.  So that was nice.  The other runners on the other hand, barely said two words to me all race.  This was a race where I was very glad to have my headphones.

What was less nice was that the only thing they had at all the aid stations was water.  I do appreciate Covid yadda yadda but I also  know it doesn't have to be like this as only yesterday they had bananas, boxes of Celebrations, packets of crisps, ziplock bags filled with sweets...  Even providing gels would have been OK.  The only race I've ever done which offered this little was Windermere and I moaned about that at the time.  I just think that if you are running a race which requires intake of carbohydrates to complete it, suitable carbohydrates ought to be provided, for safety reasons if nothing else.  But what do I know.... I'm just a dietitian! Ahhhh! 

Here are a couple more pics Ian took of me running through a river/in the rain:

And here's one where I've stopped for illicit Coke and hence look quite happy, if a little damp:

If by now you're thinking: this is getting boring, just endless boring wet roads, you're starting to feel how I felt.  My parents had said they would phone me at 4 hours, I had spent ages looking forward to this but then they couldn't hear me very well because the phone reception was a bit rubbish so I only spoke to them for a few minutes.

Somewhere around 23 miles there was a long, steepish downhill section and I suddenly had a second wind.  I overtook the people who'd just overtaken me and flew down this hill, they must have wondered what had got into me.  I've always been good at downhill running and I sailed down this hill, Ian caught me just as I got to the bottom.
Because the Isle of Wight was the same day as the Virtual London marathon, I saw quite a few people wearing two bibs.  I knew you could enter the VLM for £20 even if you didn't have a place originally, but I didn't because it seemed like cheating to get two medals for the same 26.2 miles!  Also the VLM was a virtual race, hence most people running it by definition wouldn't have had support/aid stations/etc therefore having those things also seems like cheating.  I'm surprised the race director didn't ban it as this to me is far worse than being given the odd jelly baby.  But whatever! 
At mile 24 there is a gigantic hill that goes on for a mile.  I walked up it, which I didn't mind at all.  At the top, there was a couple holding a a motivational sign and a box of orange slices.  The man was wearing a Vegan Runners top and offered me one.  I hesitated... the girl said helpfully, "Don't worry, we've washed them!" and I said, "It's not that ..." and explained about the pre-race rules email.  She said cheerfully, "We won't tell anyone!" so I took one and it was delicious.  I quickly ate it and then kept running before anybody saw me and reported me to the powers that be.

Finally I shuffle-ran along the last mile and here's a pic of me turning the corner into the finish, taken by Ian from inside the car as he wasn't allowed in. 

I had to take my own finish picture because of this, but when I got my phone out of my vest I was treated to this lovely screen:

So I stood off to one side, waiting 3 minutes, when I saw the race director.  I thanked him for letting me start at 11am (even though I actually finished in 5 hours 9 minutes so technically was a bit too quick for the "slow" group).  I said, "so you'll be sending the medals out in the post, yeah?" in reference to a line in the pre-race email which said:

Medals will be awarded to all finishers – these will be posted out to avoid contact on the day.

The race director said, "Oh no, they're over there, just pick one up".  He gestured to a table on the left.  I am pretty much 100% certain I would've walked straight past that table and would still be waiting for my medal in the post if my phone hadn't stopped working, especially as we were also asked to leave the finish area as quickly as possible.  

I got my medal. It was made of wood (not sure what I think of that).  I took a selfie:

Then I left.  Ian was waiting outside.  I got in the car, sat on a towel and went back to the hotel.  I took a pic with both my medals - my hair and all my clothes were soaked like I'd just got out of the shower.
Then I actually had a shower and sat in bed scoffing pasta that Ian had bought for me.  This is the extremely un-glamorous side of running two races in a weekend:

We went out for dinner to a very average pub, where they accidentally gave Ian alcoholic beer when he'd asked for non-alcoholic.  There were lots of roadworks.  It continued to rain.  Ian remained deeply sceptical of the Isle of Wight in general.  The next morning we got up early and caught the 9am ferry.  It was a calm and serene morning as we sailed away and commenced the 6 and a half hour drive back to Liverpool.  Many, many thanks due to the ever-patient Ian for doing so much driving this weekend.  Definitely couldn't have pulled this one off without him!