Sunday, 24 February 2013

Belvoir Challenge 2013 - 26 Miles - A Popular Event!

"...........and Belvoir's lordly terraces
The sign to Lincoln sent
And Lincoln sped the message
on o'er the wide Vale of Trent"
A poem about Lincoln's contribution to signals about the Spanish Armada by Lord Macaulay (1832) seen on the cain on the right.  
I had heard about the legend that is the Belvoir Challenge but I was staggered by the popularity of the event. I've run countless off road marathons but I'm used to perhaps a couple of hundred people turning up to take part. The Belvoir Challenge must have attracted close to 1000 entrants. I've uploaded a video here which illustrates the numbers of hardy souls that turned out on a crisp February morning to run 15 or 26 miles depending on their preference. I plumbed for the long route which ran across the beautiful Vale of Belvoir from Harby to Scalford - Waltham - Croxton Kerrial - Harston - Woolsthorpe - Belvoir Castle and back along the escarpment which includes the highest point in Leicestershire, Beacon Hill.   
I lost the mental battle with this race before the race had begun. I Felt slightly jaded after a big effort in Stamford the preceding week followed by some "balls out" track work the previous Wednesday evening. When I returned home from work on Friday feeling a bit "coldy" I questioned whether it would be counter productive to travel to Harby and take part. In the end I decided to run but without any race pressure I would just have a gentle plod round and to try and enjoy the course. Five miles in, I was reminded that it isn't really possible to run a marathon easily, whatever the pace, its always hard. I was well off my usual pace but that happened by default rather than me keeping to a consious decision. It was however good to have left the busyness of the start behind and to have found the great outdoors in which to find space to run.
Gathering at the start
At around the five mile mark the two routes split. The 15 mile route seemed the most popular and I was bit sorry that I hadn't chosen the shorter course. The event was run in cold conditions and I was looking forward to some momentary warmth at the first checkpoint in Scalford village hall. Sadly the checkpoint was in the car park. I paused to eat cake and drink water. The water was too cold to drink easily but I made sure I ate and drank plenty. I had decided to run without a bag today and used a strategy of dwelling at each checkpoint longer than usual to gain fuel instead of carrying my own. 
We ran on towards Croxton. I was still feeling heavy and sluggish, very similar to how I felt during the Round Rotherham last year. Somewhere between Waltham and Croxton the route runs adjacent to some horse gallops. The ground was more forgiving, the hard frozen field tracks gave way to a more dusty track. I was able to extend my pace a bit during this section. It was the only part of the event where I felt mildy usual and as a consequence my mood picked up. 
Just before Croxton the path joins the route of the Ponton Plod. The Ponton Plod is an excellent event which takes place in September. The events are similar but I doubt the Plod would attract near to a thousand entrants! As I ran along a particularly technical track I heard the cries of someone up ahead. I might have been concerned on another day but I knew I was approaching the tricky little turn through the hedge which people often miss on the Plod. As I approached the gap I looked ahead to see runners in front coming back to me. As predicted, they had run straight on up the track missing the gap in the hedge. I learned at the finish that some of the front runners had run ahead by as much as a mile before turning back. 
The checkpoint at Croxton Kerrial was again well stocked with food but it was also in the car park. I was cold, my slower than usual pace contributing to the misery. The checkpoint marshall helpfully told me that he had encountered a couple of bulls in "the top field" when setting up the course the day before but they hadn't bothered him.  I picked up the pace again on the way to Woolsthorpe. I knew this part of the route and that, coupled with my body temperature and the threat of bulls in the top field, gave me an incentive to run faster. The route from Harston to the Woolsthorpe - Denton road took longer than expected and I was grateful to approach the surprise view that leads down a sharp grassy incline to the checkpoint at Woolsthorpe by Belvoir. From the top of the incline you can see out for miles across Leicstershire and Nottinghamshire. The view is only interrupted by the grandeur of the imposing Belvoir Castle which sits proudly on a hill in the foreground. 
I was still struggling and experiencing a bit of stomach pressure which was relieved by a trip into the village hall - momentary warmth at last! More cake and banana was stuffed down the hatch. It was so cold that the banana had no taste, it was like a soft block of ice but it provided much needed fuel nonetheless. The fuel took a while to kick for I had to walk a fair bit of the incline up the field and track towards the castle. I was grateful to reach the road and shuffled on past a Stafford Harrier whom I had seen earlier in the day. The route now crosses a long field before rising to the escarpment. The escarpment is grand, it rises off the flat plane of Leicstershire and forms a cliff that extends for miles. We ran across top of the escarpmment all the way to the descent to Stathern.    
Mid way along the escarpment is the final checkpoint. Food was again plentiful and I wished I had more time to dwell. I stuffed more cake down and set off for the final push. Tracy had come out to support and reminded me that there was only 4.5 miles left. I was surprised but grateful, I thought the finish was at least 6 miles further on.
Friendly volunteers look out for runners.
The track along the escarpment runs through a wood of tall mature tress. Somewhere along the track we came up against piles of rocks blocking the path. The rocks were piled about 4 feet in height and extended down the track as far as the eye could see. I was a bit disappointed. Tracy's good news had given me a bit of impetuous. I had gradually found a pace and rhythm but now it was interrupted as I staggered and picked my way through the adjacent piles of rocks. Thankfully when the rocks ended the path returned and then followed the welcome descent to Stathern. I knew it wasn't far after Stathern to the finish at Harby but I was concerned that a runner behind was gaining on me. I stole through the village streets and out into the fields at the other side. As I passed through a stile in a field near to the finish the route turned sharply right. I could see a runner ahead that had gone straight on, he was coming back to rejoin the track and I thought how dejected he must have been to have taken a wrong turn so close to the finish. 
Eventually I could see the wonderful sight of the buildings on the outer reaches of the village of Harby. I picked up the pace through the village and was glad to finish in a time of 3:45:27.I was surprised, given the way I had felt during the run, to have returned in 16th place.    
Weary legs
The festivities began. Soup first, chicken or tomato, tea, tea and more tea. Spotted Dick with custard or a choice of other similarly tempting sweet delights, more tea and more tea. The village hall was buzzing with tales of the event and there were press cuttings on the walls which illustrated the history of this popular event. I'll come back to the Belvoir Challenge, the event was very well organised and supported by a cast of friendly marshalls. The route had been well thought out across some of the best bits of the Vale of Belvoir and across mostly runnable terrain with surprisingly little road. On reflection, the cold had done me a favour, the ground was frozen solid and on another cooler, wetter day, I suspect the mud would have provided a special Belvoir Challenge all of its own.     

Friday, 22 February 2013

Stamford St Valentine's 30K

The St Valentine's 30k was to be a good test of my progress in pursuit of a sub three hour marathon. Training has been going generally well although I do seem to be thrashing through hard runs followed by longer periods of rest rather than doing steady constant higher mileage. The Valentine's race is pretty tough, involving undulations some of which are steep enough to be called hills. I've run this race twice before. The distance is unusual, not short enough to really hammer it but not long enough to use the excuse of needing to run a steady, progressive pace.
It was a beautiful day for running with bright sunshine that had come to interupt the gloom of winter and remind us that better, spring like weather isn't far away. I set off from the housing estate adjacent to Queen Eleanor School in Stamford at a pace some way short of threshold and questioned through the first 10k whether I had gone off too fast. Not going off too fast is a golden rule of long distance running but it can also be used as good excuse on days when you not feeling particularly fit. "I'm not running slowly, I've just decided not to go of to fast".
At about 10k I was overtaken by a big pack of runners. I was surprised. By that point I was fairly well placed in the field and the runners in front were spread out in the distance. The pack of perhaps 7 runners engulfed me and it reminded me of various time during the London marathon when I have been on sub three hour pace and then the runner's world sub three hour pacing group (of hundreds) comes breezing past. It usually happens at a point when you are feeling low, slowing down and then you have to face the reality as you watch the swarm disappear in the distance that your sub 3 hour dream is fading fast.
At the Stamford race I journied on undeterred. I knew I'd put in a bit of training and when the usual thoughts of slowing down crossed my mind I was able to knock them into touch, keen to press ahead and give myself a decent test. The race route quickly leaves the housing estate to enter country lanes which pass between typical Lincolnshire agricultural fields. Most of the route is exposed but last week there was only a gentle breeze with occasional stronger gusts. The sun continued to shine brightly. It was a good invigorating day to race.
I passed through half way at 15K beginning to feel a bit tired and finding the thoughts to slow down harder to dismiss. The time on the clock at the side of the road was 1 hour 02 minutes. I did a bit of maths and came to the conclusion that I was almost 10 miles in and 1:02 was a respectable time. I needed that bit of encouragement, it came just at the right time. It was a good race time to defend during the second half of the race meaning that the negative thoughts would have to be withdrawn for a little while longer.
Keith can laugh about it now whilst Arthur reflects on the madness of it all.
By 20K I was pretty shot. I noticed that my pace had dropped considerably and I had a quandary with myself about whether to interrupt my pace and rhythm to get some food out of the zip pocket in the back of my shorts. I'd taken a handful of dried prunes with with me and against my better nature, a gel. I decided to hold off. I would use use the food as a treat at 25k instead.
Just before 25K I was overtaken for the first time in ages and that sealed the conclusion that it was time to eat. I shuffled the zip, retrieved the gel and swallowed it without much discomfort. I then grabbed a small handful of prunes and stuffed them into my mouth. The prunes weren't very chewable given that my mouth generally needed to be kept open to ensure that I could continue to gasp air which had been the theme of the previous 15k. I was grateful to see a "drinks stop ahead" sign and I was soon able to down a mouthful of water to aid the "prunes down the hatch" process. 
My minor food eating obstacle was through. I'd been slowed a bit but it would be worth it when the energy kicked in or the when the psychological effect that the energy was kicking in - kicked in - if you know what I mean?  I was encouraged and pressed on through the final 5K.

Scott Jones finishes his longest race so far.
The last part of this race in common with other similar races is that it goes on forever. Runners come back into the housing estate and there appears to follow turn after turn. With every turn I was staring longingly ahead through the curve of the bend to try and get a first glimpse of the school that would signify the finish. Eventually, after what seemed like a terrible succession of maze like turns I caught the first glimpse of the finish. I don't remember ever being so pleased to get to school. 
The race finishes in the school grounds but first there is the long slog around the playing field to negotiate. The organisers know how to kick a man when he's down. I was down by now. I laid it all out last Sunday and the uneven ground and longish, softish grass was just what I could have done without. I had tussled with another competitor overtaking each other at least three times during the course. I knew he was just behind so I had no choice but to keep up the pace and for the last time dismiss another thought to slow down. I was thrilled to see the race clock at 2:05 which I was fairly confident was a PB on the course. The race results confirmed a time of 2:05:03 (46th) comparable to  2:11:57 (92nd) in 2011 and 2:06:56 (62nd) in 2010. I was happy with my time even if the conditions were ideal.
More senseless punishment...
So what of the sub three hour marathon? With a pinch of salt I've put the time above into a few online marathon predictors and there are a range of results which predict I'll run between 2:57 and 3:01. So I have a chance, albeit a slim one and everything has to go right between now and the 21st April.
The Valentine's 30k is to be recommmended for a fair fee you can expect a good organised race through a testing course which provides excellent training for a spring marathon. A highlight is the good quality long sleeved t-shirt which always seems to fit well and it washes well too even If I do say so myself... 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Caythorpe Dash 2013 - Windy, Wet and Plenty of Mud

The Caythorpe Dash is a friendly, off-road half marathon now organised by the Parish Council. It cost £20 to enter the event which in my view is a bit steep. That said, I did have the opportunity to enter in advance for a £5 reduction. Races generally seem to be getting more expensive which is a shame if it deters entrants. I suppose the bottom line is that we have a choice. I exercised mine by handing over the entry fee so that I could punish myself through 13 miles of cold, wet, muddy Lincolnshire territory, there's never any sense involved in these decisions
Race Route
Snow had been forecast to coincide with the start of the race but at 11am in the quaint village of Caythorpe, Lincolnshire only rain fell from the sky. It was cold and wet, the kind of wet that hangs in the air all day. I've run this event under its previous banner, "the Caythopre Canter" today's event was run across a slightly amended version of the previous route. There was a low key race start after which perhaps 150 or so runners set off from Caythorpe through Stubton, Gelston, Hough and back to Caythorpe. 
I started at a reasonable pace in the knowledge that the second half of this event is harder than the first. I watched as Stuart Sinclair, another Grantham runner shot off in the distance. My legs felt a bit heavy and lazy after a long training run the previous Thursday but the legs improved as the race progressed. Most of this route crosses rough tractor tracks and ploughed fields. The tyre trods on the tractor tracks which run parallel with each other were very muddy and the raised grassy part in between was similarly slippy. There is a skill to be used on these events in looking ahead to see the least muddy line whilst at the same time concentrating on your next footplant. Generally I preferred to take the route of the runner in front. 
Leaving Caythorpe
By Stubton my initial laziness was gone and I started to pass runners in front. At an extended section I could see perhaps six or seven runners and it seemed ambitious to try and pass all of them but the theme of today's race was that I felt steadily stronger as the race progressed. On the way to Gelston there was a nightmare of a hill. The track rose steadily at an incline which on a better day would have tested my ability to keep running. Today it was a quagmire of ploughed mud. Every step forward meant either a slip back or a slip to the side. The clods of mud gathered like a snowball around each foot.  Again I watched my companions in front in the hope that they had picked the best line. I managed to pass another on the incline but only because the runner had come to an unintended stop ankle deep in the sludge. 
I was more than grateful to reach the top and emerge in the village of Gelston. It was good to see Tracy,  I wearily asked where I was, "Gelston" was the answer. I was non the wiser, I should have know better than to ask where I was in a place that I don't know. I was later to learn that as I wrestled up the nightmare hill, Stuart Sinclair who had sped off earlier was wrestling a dog a few minutes in front. The dog had emerged from a yard and run alongside Stuart before turning on him. Thankfully the K9 had gone by the time that I passed the same place a few minutes later and Stuart escaped injury. 
Top O''Th' Hill
From Gelston a short section follows to Hough. The route continues to climb but along a more respectable path and a less severe incline. There was a gaggle of spectators in the village. I refused water, keen to hit the last section as hard as I could. The route crosses a grave yard. In more later news I was to learn that first placing Alan Oliver of Sleaford Striders (and last week's winner of the Rauceby Ripper) took a wrong turn after the church yard and ran a fair way in the wrong direction off the course. The "diversion" cost him the race win, I understand that he was a fair way in front at the time when he went the wrong way. Alan was understandably knarked off when I spoke to him at the finish. A consequence of having the talent to lead is that you can't follow those in front which can be a big handicap on these rural events.         
I ran on down the slippery cobblestones towards the even more slippery wooden bridge. I had just passed two more Sleaford runners and as I ran off the wooden bridge I heard someone come to grief behind. One of the runners that I just overtaken slid clean off the wooden bridge. The bridge had no sides and he duly ended up in the stream! A quick query back confirmed that the runner was ok. As I glanced behind I got a momentary picture of the runner scrambling back on to the bridge which now seems funny (because I know he was alright). 
Stuart and I
I had by now passed my intended targets. There was about two miles left to run up another gradual grassy incline back to Caythorpe. I hadn't expected to see anyone else up in front and I was surprised when I glanced ahead and saw the familiar green strip of Grantham Running Club. It was Stuart Sinclair and sadly he'd blown up. Stuart was a fair way in front and I doubted that I'd catch him but  Stuart's was having a bad day, first the dog and now a blow up with less than a mile to go. I passed and offered as much encouragement as my laboured breath would allow. We crossed the final muddy field and I was grateful to reach the first tarmac road in Caythorpe. The final climb had taken it out of me and I hoped the route back through the village would be short. A few twists and turns and a shuttle down a passageway bought me to the final stretch to the finish. I think I finshed fifth (time and position tbc) and I collected a medal before greeting Stuart. I was grateful to finish today, I think we all were The race had been run in tough underfoot conditions requiring endurance rather than speed.
Any bad taste of the entry fee was off set to some extent by the excellent tasting food. Runners had the option of two delicious home made soups. I had carrot and corriander. Followed by Lincolnshire sausages served hot dog style with or without onions. Finally there was bread and butter pudding with custard, apple crumble or tart. The bread and butter pudding went down a treat. There were showers in the village hall which are always welcome and especially so today given the conditions. I chatted to the race winner, an American Air forceman based in the UK. Other Grantham runners returned to take part in the post race fun all grateful to be away from the cold outdoor conditions.     


Saturday, 2 February 2013

Rauceby Ripper - A Lost Sole

"I blew the soles off my feet"
Kyle Scaggs after setting the record for the 2008 Hardrock 100

"The sole came off my shoe"
Paul Rushworth after staggering round the 2013 Rauceby Ripper.  

Rauceby Ripper Route 2013
Sadly my lost sole was more to do with inappropriate choice of footwear rather than a super human performance. 7 miles into the 8 mile Rauceby Ripper race, the sole of my show came clean off leaving me to run to the finish Barefoot Ted style.
The day started well, bright sunshine flooded into the bedroom as the curtains were pulled back. The vaguely predicted snow forecast for Lincolnshire seemed unlikely to arrive. I had decide to cycle the ten or so miles to Rauceby and I had prepared the bike the previous evening. It was cold as I left the house just after 9am. By the time I arrived at the top of the hill in Londonthorpe I was too hot and needing to remove layers. There were some good view across the agricultural flatlands. The sun continued to shine brightly and other than the cold which was making my toes feel like blocks of ice I was looking forward to the race.
An advantage of cycling to a race start is that you arrive warmed up. Just after I arrived the race field that had been milling within the village hall left to wander down to the race start leaving the facilities almost entirely for me to "enjoy" on my own. By the time I arrived at the start I was warm and ready to race!
Keith Measures - Grantham AC
The Rauceby Ripper is an 8ish mile trail race crossing the edges of ploughed fields, tracks, wooded trails and a little bit of road. Some of the race runs through a private estate. The going is tough in places. I ran this event last year when a  hard frost had left lots of ankle turning territory. This year the fields were muddy and there were occasional puddles infiltrating the track demanding decisions about whether to run through and keep pace or alter course to go round whilst momentarily altering rhythm. The route is exposed in parts and runners had to battle hard against a stiff wind to keep a respectable pace. At one part I was directed through an unexpected gap in the hedge. I'd been running happily along a tarmac road when a marshall appeared and guided us through. At the other side of the hedge the only way to go was into a deep ditch with heavily ploughed clods of mud at the bottom. Thankfully it wasn't long before we could clamber out back on to the adjacent grass track.
Spot the difference
I was running well through six miles. I'd passed a few competitors and held off a heavily breathing challenger behind. After six miles I started to tire and the same heavy breather came past. I tried to stay with him but couldn't match the pace. Things got worse as I entered the wood, perhaps a mile from the finish. I was running at a steady pace and decided to run straight through a puddle on the path. It turned out the puddle was more muddy than wet and when I pulled my foot out I had (or at least I thought I had) ended up with someone else's shoe attached to my own. I felt sorry for the runner in front who had lost their shoe and I questioned if they had been able to carry on without it. 
My mind was soon bought back into focus for whilst I pondered my compatriots misfortune I had been trying to vigorously shake off the shoe which had become attached somehow to my own. I managed a few good shakes without breaking pace. It would have looked funny if there were any bystanders watching but we were in a fairly dense wood and there was nobody else around. Eventually I had to stop. I crossed my other foot to stand on the attached shoe and then moved my other foot quickly to tear my shoe away. It worked and I ran on. Perhaps I should have realised sooner but I'd run a few more paces before noticing that my left foot felt distinctly lighter than my right foot. It slowly dawned on me, I hadn't picked someone else's shoe up in the puddle, it was the sole of my own shoe that had come off - oh dear.....
Bareback Runners
I carried on running with little discomfort. I half thought that there must have been some covering left underneath because the route soon crossed stoney ground and If I was truly running bearfoot it would have hurt. I managed to run without interference all the way to the finish when an inspection confirmed that although the sole had come clean off there was an inner sock left that had provided just enough protection, phew!
I got back in 11th place in a time of 1:03:45 Stuart Sinclair was in front in 7th and new member Dave Kay was a place in front of Stuart. I understand that Dave is mainly a footballer but has recently tried a bit of running and has uncovered an undiscovered talent. 
We cheered home the rest of the Grantham contingent and watched as group of friends arrived together without their tops on. Obvioulsy not content with the race challenge they decided to run the route without tops on brrrrr. We retired for tea and shortbread biscuits but not before collecting race bags filled with chocolate bars, a banana, a medal, a bottle of water and crisps all of which provided fuel for the cycle home, another fine morning out. Thanks to the Rauceby race organisers.