Saturday 7 August 2021

Somerset: Mendip Marauder 30 mile ultra race recap

I originally signed up for the Mendip Marauder on 21 September 2018.  The race wasn't until 3 August 2019, but I'd seen the medal and I really, really wanted it.

Unfortunately the race was cancelled at the last minute (4 days before the event) due to a road closure which the organisers had only just found out about.  Hmm... not great.  You'd think race directors might keep an eye on this sort of thing...  Apparently both a road and a path were closed and the only possible diversion would add at least six miles to the route.  This was deemed not viable so it was cancelled.  I wrangled with my non-refundable accommodation, who reluctantly agreed not to charge me.

The rescheduled date was 8 August 2020 - which was towards the end of Covid second wave.  Although a few races were running, the logistics of this race made it difficult (including one way coach travel due to the linear route) so fair enough, it was cancelled again.

The re-rescheduled date was 7 August 2021.  Yay!  Then on 31 July 2021, 8 days before the event,  I received an email to say that the race had been substantially changed.  Firstly, it no longer started or finished in the same place.  I had already booked accommodation in Weston-super-Mare but luckily I could drive to the start, albeit somewhat inconvenient.

Secondly it no longer followed the same route, and now didn't go on the East Mendip Way at all, significantly changing the race to something which no longer resembled the race any of us had signed up for.  Luckily for me though, it WAS still in Somerset, so I wasn't particularly fussed.

Thirdly, the new route added an additional 600m of ascent to an already substantial 1100m of ascent, when I am not remotely trained for ascent and my last two races and all my training have been on the flat.  Bummer.

I was not particularly impressed with the race organisation by this point, I have to say, but they did seem nice and well-meaning so I just tried to go with the flow.  They could definitely take some lessons from the Norfolk race director though.  Pretty sure this would never have happened at one of his events!

The day before the race, I drove down to Weston-super-mare.  The journey was pretty hideous with driving rain and loads of traffic on the M6 and it took me 3 hours to drive 84 miles.  I stopped off near Bristol to see an old friend, Phil, and we had dinner together in a pub off the motorway.  I had this delicious and beautiful (but quite small) goats cheese and beetroot linguine:


Afterwards I continued on to Weston-super-Mare.  I was staying in a B&B and when I arrived, was delighted to find there was a mini fridge in my room.  I decided to go out for a wander, to buy race snacks and have a look round the town and maybe get some chips.

Weston turned out to be a pretty deprived area - at least the bits I saw.  It had the air of (very) faded seaside town, with nothing to do and no money invested in it for decades.  I saw paralytic teenage girls at 7.30pm, teetering in high heels; overweight parents shouting at their overweight children; a man lurking outside the bookies with the red, puffy look of a heavy drinker.  Outside Tesco there was a gang of teenagers with bikes and hoodies with the hoods up.  To my surprise, they politely moved out of the way as I approached.

I walked down to the pier, which was closed, and as I crossed towards it, an older guy on rollerblades skated in front of me.  His wheels caught in a patch of loose sand and he tripped. Meanwhile, a man sullenly swept the empty Pier from behind a locked gate.  It was a pretty depressing and soulless place.  I tried to imagine growing up here, this being the only world you knew.  I thought grimly of Banksy's Dismaland.  It made sense now why he put it here.

I'd already walked past six fish and chip shops that were closed.  Some looked closed permanently, others obviously felt it wasn't worth staying open this late on a Saturday evening.  I finally spotted one that was open and crossed the road to get to it.  I was behind a woman in her early 40s, her daughter and her two young-ish grandchildren.  They ordered.  The staff looked harangued.  Various customers stood around waiting for their orders.  The young man behind the counter was doing his best.  He called, "sausage and chips?" and glanced at the assembled company.  An angry woman came over and opened the container.  "I said TWO sausages and ONE chips," she snarled and pushed it back at him.  "You better give me a refund, you've overcharged me now," she added.  His manager sorted the refund.  The customer snatched her meal without saying thank you and said, "Aren't you going to give me anything to eat it with?" and then stormed out.  The manager then announced to the rest of the queue, "We're closed.  After her," and pointed at me.  I silently  checked my watch: 20:03.  I ordered a small chips and a bread roll as politely as I could.  The boy behind the till apologised they didn't have any bread rolls.  "Will bread and butter do?" he asked.  I said yes.  When my order came, I thanked him and said he shouldn't have to be treated the way that other customer spoke to him.  He laughed and said, "It's alright".  I gave him a massive tip and took my chips and went over to the beach to eat them.
It might be a white bread chip buttie but it tasted pretty good.  Despite the small portion, I only managed half the chips.  I walked back to the B&B, thinking about privilege.  On the way back I saw the woman and her grandchildren, eating ice creams the size of my head.

The next day I got up and got ready for the race and prepared all my race snacks - carefully calculated to contain as many carbohydrates as possible:

Then I drove to Wells, the new start of the race.  As I arrived at 09:30, the 50 mile runners were just setting off.  I stopped and clapped through the car window until they'd all passed and then made my way in to register.  The weather forecast wasn't great but it wasn't raining (yet).  I went to the loo and ate a banana and attached my race number.

There seemed to be a lot of Serious Athletes there.  You can always tell because Serious Athletes fold their numbers up really small and put them on their legs rather than their t-shirts.  And they have lots of expensive kit.  And they are Local People who are obviously used to hills compared to my weak Liverpool legs.  I felt unfit and unprepared.  I was probably going to be last.

The coaches arrived to take us to the start and we all got on.  The journey took just over half an hour.   The man behind me was talking with another competitor and it was all a bit willy-waving and I felt quite inadequate so I put my headphones in to drown them out and stared out the window.  There were a LOT of hills.  On the way there it started to rain.  As the rain got heavier, everyone got their rain jackets out of their packs and put them on.
When we arrived at the start, there were quite a few people already there who had got a lift and didn't need the coach.  I was in the first wave so I quickly went for a wee (behind a bush, obv) and took a selfie before getting into position.  There was a brief and pointless race briefing: "go up there and bear right and you'll soon know where you are, just follow the path around onto the tops" and then we were off!

The race literally started with a savage uphill that got fiercer as it went on.  Just about everyone overtook me immediately and I ended up right at the very back with a couple of girls from Weston who were also walking.  I told them I wasn't keen on hills and they laughed.  I'd always planned to walk the hills and this was definitely not a hill to kill yourself on. 

After ten or so minutes, we reached the top and the views were pretty good. It was spitting with rain but not too bad and I lost the girls as soon as the path evened out as I was a bit faster on the flat.

The route continued to be undulating, with the route bimbling through various fields, woodlands and farmland.   I got chatting to a nice chap called Mark who had come up from Devon to run the race.  He found out I was from Liverpool so I explained to him about my challenge and we chatted about other races to pass the time.

I lost Mark after not too long as he was running up hills whereas I was walking.  At one point I was attacked by a savage bramble:

It was pretty painful as there were splinters in there, which I fished out, and actual blood and everything!  It stung but wasn't serious so I just ignored it and kept going (after taking a photo, obviously).  I didn't know this then, but it wouldn't be long before I got so soaking wet that there'd be no blood left to see....

Shortly after this, a fast runner came past me in the opposite direction.  I was confused - was he lost?  He didn't look lost?  I tried not to worry about it.  Then a few minutes later, another passed me.  Then another.  I suddenly recalled my friend Emma, who was going to run this race with me last year but had deferred, saying it had changed to an out-and-back course.  I'd only looked at the OS map where it wouldn't be obvious.  Der!  After that, loads of runners came past.

Eventually I got to the turning point, which was virtually completely unmarked but there happened to be a couple of spectators shouting 'turn around!' - hmm! - and I headed back the other way.  I passed two or three people behind me and then nothing.  Five minutes later, still nothing.  I realised I must be right at the back of the race.  Virtually last!  How had I been overtaken by *everyone* already? 

Ten minutes passed.  Suddenly runners appeared in the opposite direction.  Then more, then even more.  There were probably at least 30 people behind me.  Later, I started to see the 50 mile runners passing as well. Phew.

I passed the first checkpoint, picking up some Coke and snacks but not stopping for long.  I bumped into Mark again - he had taken a wrong turning and done some bonus miles since I last saw him.  We carried on together for a while.  In places it was pretty muddy:

Eventually we got back up the top of the hill that was at the start of the race.  Mark wanted to take a picture of the trig point so I did too.  Then I zipped off down the hill.  I'm a speed demon downhill and can outrace most people because I have no fear (thanks to the teachings of my old coach Matt Buck - I think of him every time I overtake people on downhills)!

I had to pay for it later with my quads, but there were some REALLY fun downhills in this race.

 I ran back past the place where the coach dropped us off and carried on.  It was getting rainier now.  I don't remember much about this part of the race.


The rain was making the paths muddy and there was mud all up my calves:

By the time I got to the second checkpoint, the rain was torrential.  There were a couple (also from Devon) who I kept leap-frogging who arrived around the same time as me.  The checkpoint staff were trying to put a gazebo up in absolutely horrific conditions, all the food was getting wet, we were all soaked to the skin despite being fully dressed in waterproofs.  I didn't hang around for long.  This picture does not in any way depict how bad it was:

Just after this, as I tramped along a rainy road, I saw a big Landrover type car coming towards me.  It stopped and I tried to hurry up so they didn't have to wait too long for me to pass.  As I approached, I recognised it as one of the aid station volunteers/race staff.  He wound down the window.  There were three young children in the back.  They chorused, "Well done, you're doing great," as I passed which definitely gave me a boost.  

A bit further along - I was running along a gorge in heavy rain and realised I'd gone slightly off course.  I retraced my steps and bumped into the couple who had also gone the wrong way.  Together we picked a route through the woods using my watch and OS maps until we managed to rejoin the path we were meant to be on.  I'm pretty sure lots of people got lost there!

Some point around here, I was running along a farm track in absolutely pouring rain.  All my clothes were soaked as if I'd got in the shower.  I ran past a walker, dressed in waterproofs and wellies, head down battling against the rain.  I turned towards her and shouted, "This is my hobby!"  She laughed.  "I do this for fun!" I shouted over my shoulder before running off down the trail.  It amused me, but it was also true.  At times, running is bloody awful, but I try to remember that it really is always a choice.

I came across a field of cows.  They were blocking the gate I needed to get through.  It was annoying because I was wet, getting cold, and didn't have time for this shit.  I normally am a bit scared of cows, but I rose up to my full height, held out my arms and shouted, "I am the Cow Commander and I demand that you MOOOOOOOOOVE!" 

They did.  I plodded onwards.  Still it rained.


The path opened out here and became a lot more grassy.   I took the photo to show how wet it was, but as usual it's hard to tell.


I got chatting to a couple of lads at one point - one of them had done it before, in 2018 and was hoping to beat his record but was having issues - cramp, possibly.  The other was a cheerful chappy, happily telling me about his other mates in the race, quite upbeat despite the weather, clearly having a good time.  He told me there was going to be a steep uphill on our left in a minute and low and behold, there it was:

The pair of them trailed me across open fields.  There were millions of half-stile, half-gates to climb over.  I needed a wee but there was nowhere to go that wasn't extremely public.  Eventually I was far enough ahead that I could stop just after one of the walls, turn to face the direction they were coming from and then very quickly have a pee.  I stopped, turned and pulled my knickers down.  Just as I was about to go, I heard a weird sound.  I looked over my shoulder and AN ENTIRE HERD OF COWS was rapidly moving towards my bare arse.   I have never abandoned a wee so quickly in my life.  I hoiked my leggings up and skidded off to the side to try and get away from them, now only a meter or so away from me. I was no longer the Cow Commander, I was the hunted!  Arrrggh!

Just after this incident, still needing a wee, I followed the GPX route on my map slightly off the path and across the field.  To my surprise, something shot off out of the grass in front of me and I realised immediately it was a hare.  I don't remember the last time I saw one - they are pretty rare compared to the ubiquitous bunnies - and it was a real treat.

I continued onwards.  This was the last photo I took during the race.  It was pretty near the end, I think I had done a marathon by now.  The weather had finally dried out and it was actually quite pleasant.  Needless to say, I did not get to see the village, the caves, or the inside of the farm shop.  Sad face.

I'd been using OS maps on my phone fairly heavily to get me round and near the end, I stopped to try to figure out a tricky junction.  There was a gate but also a road.  I went up the road, but it looked like I was going the wrong way on my watch so I retraced my steps.  As I did so, one of the 50 mile runners started coming towards me.  I asked him if I was going the right way, he said yes - then realised his mistake and we both returned to the gate.  We went through the gate and up a hill into a wooded section.  As usual, I couldn't see any markers and I couldn't see a path.  I lost the other runner (he was way faster than me!) and I ended up crashing through undergrowth looking for the path. I eventually found something that would do and followed it until my watch said I was back on course.  The next time I took my phone out to take a photo - it had died. 

I knew I was near the end now so no problem.  It was only a couple of kilometers and mostly downhill so I breezed it.  I crossed the finish line and everyone there clapped, which was lovely.   The young 50 mile runner who'd been just ahead of me was there - he had run an extra 20 miles and only had a 1 hour headstart on me - pretty impressive!  We had a little chat - he seemed like a genuinely lovely guy. 

I went over to my car and got my phone charger, but couldn't get my phone to stay on long enough to take any photos - it just kept dying. So I hung around for a while, clapping as people finished and eating snacks. I saw the guy who'd done in in 2018 - he beat his previous time by 5 minutes.  Aww.  Eventually my phone decided to play ball - here's a photo showing all the mud:

And here I am at the finish with my long awaited medal:
Someone else kindly took a photo of me with the finish line sign too:
I went back to the car.  I had decided to book a second night of accommodation as was worried about completing a 5 hour drive after such a long, hilly race - this turned out to be a good idea.  My accommodation was in Worcester (nearest place I could find a cheap room) which was still a couple of hours away so I attempted to clean myself with "Dude Shower", which was like a giant wet wipe.  I'd been given it in the goody bag after Chicago marathon and decided now was the time to use it!  It was actually pretty cool although somewhat Americanised: "Directions: Grab one, scrub down your face, body, pits and DUDE regions - we suggest in that order".  Sorry dudes, but the whole wipe only just about managed to cleanse my calves... need a bigger wipe.


Here is the lovely medal - not as huge as I had imagined but still well worth the wait.  I was 31st out of 79 runners in the 30 mile race.  Marginally better than my usual middle-of-the-pack position!  I finished before Mark, before the couple, and before the lads I was with near the end.  Not a bad showing considering my lack of hill training...

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