Sunday 26 June 2022

Gloucestershire: Race to the Tower day 2 race recap

Originally I planned to do this race in 2020, but it was cancelled due to Covid, so this is the very last of the Covid reschedules.  A few weeks before the event, I got a phone call from Moorfields booking my long-awaited eye operation.  The op means I can wear contact lenses again, which is damn handy for running.  I had this op previously on the other eye and I wasn't allowed to run for two weeks but I was allowed to walk.  I checked out Race to the Tower's website and the cutoff was 13 hours - well I could definitely walk it in that. It was too late for a refund in any case and having already paid for accommodation I decided I might as well just try it anyway, as including petrol and food this race was costing somewhere around £350 - ouch.  I could always DNF if it all went horribly wrong...

On the day of the op I asked the registrar if I could walk 'quite long distances', she shrugged and said 'yes, sure'.  So when the consultant came round, I tried my luck and asked if I could run post-op.  She said, 'I don't see why not... do you mean jogging or sprinting?!"  I said, "Jogging, slow jogging" and she said that in a couple of days, that would be fine.  I was delighted!

I was in and out in half a day and the dressing came off after 24 hours.  Here is an artist's impression of my right eye:

I won't scar you for life with any actual pictures, don't worry!  I wore sunglasses nearly the whole day to try to limit light-sensitivity and only took them off in the darkest of woods.

The day before I had a pretty rough car journey involving nausea, headaches and an unbelievable amount of moaning.  I refused to play mini golf, I insisted on an afternoon nap (admittedly I hadn't been sleeping well due to the eye shield I had to wear at night) and I complained bitterly about having to walk into Cheltenham because I was cold.  Poor Ben!

It didn't help that the race started at 6am, which meant a 4:30am alarm call.  But as soon as I woke up, I felt better.  Ben said he could tell I was going to be OK before we even left for the race, which was only 15 minutes away from where we were staying.  It was a bit chilly so I started in my waterproof jacket.

When we got there, Ben was surprised at the mega-organisation.  Rows of neat tents, proper catering facilities and showers.  He said, "It's like a mini festival!"  He's more used to me starting races in car parks with some bloke in a hi-vis jacket.

Just before 6am, a small group of runners assembled at the start and there was a short race briefing, which mainly said there were nearly 100 gates between here and the finish, arrggh.  Without much ado, we were off.  My plan was to walk the first few kilometres and see how I felt, but I only managed a few hundred yards before I was cold and bored.  I decided I would shuffle-run for a bit (a classic ultra-style gait where you lift your feet the minimum amount possible and sort of shuffle along at a pace faster than walking, but not quite fast enough to be called running.  Watch the mid-pack from mile 45+ of any ultra and you'll soon see exactly what I mean). 


The paths were pretty flat and easy to shuffle along and I felt sure road shoes were the right choice.  Looking back at my race report, I wore road shoes to Race to the Stones as well, which were almost certainly the wrong choice, but I don't think I owned any trail shoes back then!  

The below picture was taken at 6:15am, pretty soon after the start.  Shortly afterwards I got chatting to the woman on the left of the pic, who was (I think) called Kate, and later I ran most of the race with the woman in pink (Kim).

Kate was quite local and her husband had run the full 52 miles yesterday.  She'd been supporting him all day and also picked him up at the end.  As a result she'd only had about 1 hour's sleep herself (!)  She told me that this race is 'on hold' next year, and that places were still available last week, which made me suspect this might be the last time it goes ahead - all the better that I'm doing it now!  She also told me there were 3 big hills plus the one at the end, at which point the first hill presented itself and we climbed up it.  Views from the top were great and you could even see the Malvern Hills in the distance! 

She kindly offered to take a photo of me with the lovely view: 

As we reached the top of the first hill, we came upon a couple of other runners - Helen and Kim.  They were both from Oxfordshire but didn't know each other before the race and we all ran together until we reached the first aid station.  Helen had run yesterday's marathon and stayed overnight at the camp.  Kim explained that this was her first marathon - I was delighted as it's always a privilege to be even a tiny part of someone's first marathon.  I waxed lyrical about how you never forget it and no matter what, the first one will always be special and that I was envious of her of getting to have that wonderful experience today.  We also chatted a bit about how a hilly trail marathon isn't the easiest first marathon she could have chosen!

On arrival at the first aid station, we all scattered around to go to the loo and pick up snacks and fluids.  I was expecting great things because Race to the Stones (run by the same people) had the best aid stations of any race I've ever done and this was no different.  Because we'd started so early, it felt like we were amongst the first few people through.  I had some fruit and picked up a flapjack to take with me and took off my jacket as it was getting warmer now.  I soon caught up with Kim and Helen and we carried on, chatting away.


Unfortunately, we chatted so enthusiastically that we missed a right hand turn  and didn't realise until we reached a junction.  Suddenly I thought, I haven't seen an arrow for a really long time.  We looked left and saw participants coming down the hill.  At first I thought we'd just taken an alternative route, but when I got my OS map out and checked the route, I could see we'd missed out 3 sides of the square.  

We had a quick discussion.  We were all in agreement that we'd have to go back and do the bit we'd missed or otherwise our race was going to be quite considerably short, and Kim wouldn't have done her first marathon.  So we ran back to where we missed the turn and then did the extra three sides, leaving us with a funny looking circle on Strava, and adding 2 bonus miles.


After what seemed like forever, we got back to the junction where we realised we'd gone wrong and took this celebratory picture, which I love!


There was quite a gusty tailwind which I was grateful for, as a headwind would have made my eye stream.  As it was, I had no issues.  The paths were mainly pretty flat and manageable. 


After much further than it should have been, we made it to the second aid station.  Again it was ridiculously well stocked.  This was only about 1/4 of it!  You can see they had special coloured recycling bins for food waste, gel wrappers, plastic and other rubbish at the far end.  We all gathered our snacks and carried on.


Shortly after we left the aid station we were walking up another big hill when I felt something brush against me.  At first, I thought it was a dog and I turned, only to find Ben there!  We'd roughly agreed he would meet me at some point, but he'd managed to park somewhere and then run along the trail until he caught up with us, which was a lovely surprise.   He was not remotely surprised to find me looking well and cheerful and he walked with us for the rest of the hill as I filled him in on race adventures and introduced him to my companions.  As we approached the top of the hill he took a lovely photo of the three of us.  When we started running again, he walked back down the hill and drove off to investigate the farm shops of Gloucestershire - we're still eating the rhubarb, chocolate and other goodies he bought whilst I was running!


A bit further on we came across these horses lying down which was quite funny.  They got up when we climbed over the stile though!

Here's Helen and Kim passing a pretty Cotswold stone cottage:

Spotted this plaque on a wall - this bit must be part of the route of the Cotswold Way Century, an ultra which is still kicking around on my "Must Do" list.  The whole Way is 102 miles long - maybe I could do it as a multi-day as a kind of warm up?  Probably need to start LOVING HILLS first though.  


We kept on going, through wheat fields, past hay bales, past lambs.  It was very pretty but we were all starting to get tired now.  Kim was having a psychological struggle with the fact that her watch said there was only 6 miles to go but she knew it was more because we'd done the bonus miles.  I showed her my watch, which on the map screen tells you how far it is to the end rather than how far you've done.  I find this helpful as if you've gone wrong, it'll still show the correct distance to the end.  (Although it can be quite intimidating when it says 160km to go at the start of a 100 miler - I didn't mention that!)

To be fair to Kim, she did amazingly well especially as it was her first marathon and we inadvertently turned it into an ultra.  Helen also did amazingly given she had already run a full marathon the day before. We were all starting to get tired so the plan was to get to the aid station and have some Coke and some sugar and then get the last bit done. 

Around this time we kept overtaking the same tall-ish bloke with calf sleeves and a red vest and a cap, but I think there were actually about 3 or 4 of them who were all dopplegangers.  I joked with the others, "look, it's identikit bloke number 47"!


When we reached the last aid station (which was only 8km from the end, rather than the 10km I thought), the aid station volunteers had written inspirational messages on the bananas with a Sharpie.  This is such a great idea, I will definitely be stealing it if I ever organise a race.  It really made me smile!


After the aid station we went through a field of wheat that reminded me of Race to the Stones, although not quite as dramatic as their famous money shot!

The last town you go through before the final hill is called Broadway, and Ben was here but missed me because he was using Find My iPhone as a tracker and it's not particularly precise.  He told me afterwards he was in a shop as we ran past. Apparently Broadway is very fancy.  I'm sorry I didn't have time to enjoy it properly!

It started getting hilly on the way out of the town and continued being hilly until the end of the race.

On the final kilometre I traded Facebook details with Kim and Helen so we could keep in touch and we all agreed it had been SO LOVELY to have each other's company throughout the race.  I often run with one other person but rarely two - but this race really leant itself to it with wide paths and pavements throughout.  It was an absolute pleasure and an inspiration to see these two achieving their goals - and I was just grateful to get round it with no eye-related problems considering I only had surgery 4 days ago.  

When we crossed the finish line, both Kim and Helen had their families there and Ben was waiting for me, so we had a quick finish line picture and went our separate ways.  In the end we did 28 miles in 6 hours 30 minutes.

My poles felt like they really helped again although my arms didn't ache at all and my legs absolutely killed me for days afterwards which suggests I wasn't really using them correctly - hmm. 

After this I went into the competitor's food tent and ate a really quite pleasant meal of vegan onion bhajis and salad and chips, which was included in the price.
Then Ben insisted I have some pictures taken with the tower, I didn't want to go all the way round there because it was cold, so we compromised and I posed ridiculously with the tower in the background. Fascinating fact: apparently you can see 16 counties from the top of the Broadway Tower... although quite a few of them are Welsh ones.

After this I went and got changed, then I dropped off some old sportswear for recycling (this was a good initiative which other races should also do) and then we went home.  Because the race started at the crack of dawn, we were back in London by 4pm which must be a record!

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