Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Ridgeway Challenge race report

I saw their head torches splashing light across the buildings by the bridge in Goring, followed a short while later by their chatter. It was high-pitched and quick, like excited kids among new found friends and I was eager to meet them. Although it was past 23:00 and as I waited, stood alone in shorts and t-shirt trying to ignore the double-take glances of cars driving past, I felt happy that I was running the famous Ridgeway with like-minded buffoons on a Friday night.

That was about 4 weeks or so before the start of The Ridgeway Challenge. I'd offered to be a checkpoint for other runners so as they recce'd the route they could pick up water supplies along the way. And whilst I never intended to enter the event myself, I guess it was inevitable. Running with others is very enticing. I'm fascinated by people and what makes them unique and I've found in my life I can rarely say no to an honest invitation. No sooner had "you should do it" been said, my mind was made up. I'd do it.

At Bury Down 4 weeks before the event

What was it that I was doing again?

Once again I'd found myself writing a cheque my brain and body were at odds over. My brain was positive and confident. Knowing I'd suffered worst for longer. My body however was more cautious. The longest run since April of this year was the recce run, and at 22 miles it was just over a quarter of the Ridgeway route. I'd have to take the next month's training seriously.

The Ridgeway Challenge is an ultra-marathon across the entire length of the Ridgeway trail. An 86 mile course with 9,000 feet of elevation. Eek!

Training regime begins today! No, tomorrow.

Buoyed with enthusiasm for a new ultra marathon event, I joined a short distance athletics social club. Yup, I know I know.

One 10k run a week, some track work (that I missed 3 or the 4 times) and a few weekend trail runs. Oh no, tell a lie, I did also get in a few pancake-flat half marathons in too. And I kid you not, I felt better prepared than at almost any other event of my life. Really must do better next time.

Kit inspection

The OMM Kamleika II is a
fantastic water-proof jacket
With the recent heavy rain, I had visions of horrific conditions out on the course and I decided that I'd need to invest in some serious kit. A trail run in wet and muddy conditions in my well-loved Nike Air Pegasus trainers revealed I would likely slip every 6 feet. They had to be replaced. Similarly my mountain bike waterproof was too heavy and too short around the waist. Must be replaced. I probably would have bought new shorts too, if I hadn't have had such a bad prior experience of changing such clothing options shortly before an event. Especially clothing that's neighbours with my special bits. And whilst I spent top dollar on everything, in hindsight I was probably a little naïve in some of my decisions.

What I should have done better

It's all very well me laughing at my stupidity and absurdity in entering these events, but it's not so great when you're led up in bed two days after the event staring down at fat ankles wondering when I'll be able to wear shoes again.

I almost love how I can do these things and cheat serious injury, but if I want to keep doing them for longer then I need to pay more attention and respect to the events and my body (woah, that's Seanie's rare inner serious voice right there).

So, what did I learn?
  • Unless I have trusted kit ready in advance, then I shouldn't  sign up for a demanding event that starts in 4 weeks
  • I have wide feet and should have my gait and sizing checked by a professional
  • I should recce the route or at least ask questions from those who have
  • If friends are doing an event and I want to do it too, ask and sign-up early, don't wait
I just hope I read this (and other posts from my past) when I come to book my next event...

The big day

Much like the start of the SDW50 event earlier on in the year, which was going to be my longest run ever as well, I wasn't nervous. I was just going to start running and then eat and chat along the way and then finally finish at some point. Maybe that's ignorance of the challenge ahead or the best way to start an event? Or both?
Waiting to get started

I loved that Justin was there. Don't tell him, but he's a bit of a hero to me. He focuses on the goal, gets the right training in, and then comes up trumps with a great time and no injuries.

Read Justin's Ridgeway race report.

I also met Bex and Ilsuk, new friends from the night of the recce and WhatsApp compatriots, at the registration area, which was simply a couple of gazebos and a sign. The Trail Running Association (TRA) definitely made the event feel almost home spun and in a great way too. The organisation was great and felt right. There was no corporate crap or over the top briefings and the volunteers looked like regular runners or at least interested in what was going on and it made the start all the better.

At the top of Ivinghoe Beacon, a short walk from the registration area, we were all set-up ready to go. After a quick briefing we set off. On went all the Garmins, and as usual two things happen to me:
  1. I feel alive and my legs fire me up
  2. I forget to wish my close-fellow runners, Justin, Bex and Ilsuk, good luck
I hate that. I just get carried away with the moment like an over-excited puppy and then bam, I'm gone. I should probably add that to the list of things I've learned not to do (again).
View from Ivinghoe Beacon 

The checkpoints

Anyway, the starting sections were great. The sun was mostly out, there was very little wind and the route was green and most enjoyable. The navigation would have been interesting if it weren't for the plethora of signs that dotted every junction and I simply needed to follow the acorn or RIDGEWAY signs.

The first checkpoint came and went quickly. I grabbed some water and a few cheeky jelly babies before saying hello to Cate and Crossy (support crew for Justin) and headed off. Must have been there all of 2 minutes at most.

I don't particularly recall much of the route after this. I remember specifics, like there being a kids park, a yellow box, Chequer's, some cows, a bull, plenty of gates and a few walkers. Oh and then I came across a 10:00 starter. I was a little perplexed at first forgetting there were two start times, but wished the lady good luck regardless and only realising who she would have been after I passed her. I met a few more 10:00 starters and they all seemed in good spirits, if going a little more steady-paced than other runners.

Happy and content out on the run
Checkpoint 2 came up quickly and that's where I met the sandwich lady who insisted I take some (4!) for the road. I said thanks for their help, stole a cheeky handful of mini-pork-sausages and was on my way. Again, I'm not great for remembering lots of the journey or the route, but this is where I'd meet Tony and we'd run together or pass each other at CPs for the next 30 or so miles.

I'd actually been following Tony for a while already. He looked like he knew where he was going and with the gentle steer of experience he navigated through some tricky turns and right handers. Unbeknownst to me, he hadn't the foggiest idea where he was going and was doing as I was, by following the person in front… until they went too far ahead. Over the course of the 30 miles, we had to stop a few times to check location against nearby signs and once we, er, oh goodness the shame, we took a short-cut. We'd been merrily chatting along when we were running down a road. And we just kept chatting and clearly didn't see a sign. After feeling the 'ping' of something's not right, I consulted my map (so glad I brought it) and found ourselves on a road parallel to the course. We carried on and probably saved a good mile or two, but importantly we got ourselves back on track.

Tony pushed ahead once more when I answered the call of nature and then nature decided to answer it's own call with a light shower. I ummed and arred about whether to put my jacket on and finally gave in. Stopping whilst running is a horrible time. Every second you stop to faff is time wasted, but better to stop than get soaked I agreed with my internal decision making monologue. The rain didn't last too long and it was to be the only shower of the day. We really were very very lucky with the weather.

Checkpoint 3 cruised around quickly enough. Now here's another thing I learned. I didn't eat enough. I still had 3 sandwiches from checkpoint 2 and had only had an energy bar, a few jelly babies and those sausages. I didn't feel hungry, but I missed out somewhere or at some point in the event because I hadn't eaten. Naughty Seanie!

Doris and Boris; Checkpoint 4 capers. Bless them, they were really sweet, but boy was it comical watching them. A combination of them not having checked in a number, doing everything twice but with a delay of 5 seconds between them and then a series of people joining and leaving at the same time sent the checkpoint into near chaos. It wouldn't have been amiss in a Two Ronnie's sketch show!

I did get to see Bex at this point, which was most welcome. She looked healthy, bubbly and all smiles. It was for those reason that later on when I'd exhausted most other normal thoughts that you have when you have so much time to think, that I thought she'd make a great gladiator. Whatever happened to that show?

Justin at Goring happy to see food
(and Cate?)
As I left CP4 (leaving my favourite cap and 3 of the 4 sandwiches), I was sure they would catch-up (Bex was running with two male escorts. Wait, what?), but I hadn't expected Grim's Ditch. Wow, what a fun little roller coaster of a trail it was. Twisty, technical and in the woods. Must have been 5 miles worth and I loved every second, which also pushed me faster than I expected and I even managed to catch-up with Tony again.

We'd been chatting about other running events and he told me about Lakeland 50 in July with the heat and superman effort needed to finish it. The Bedouin checkpoint with sofas and music sounded amazing and as did his sprint to the finish to get in in under 12 hours. It's chats like this that make the minutes and miles slip by.

Checkpoint 5 was at Goring and where I would be re-united with my drop-bag where I could change socks and top and get into some tights (steady). Some good food (and plenty of coke) filled me with energy and whilst I only wanted to spend 20 minutes there, I ended up spending 30 because I had lost most of my dexterity and hand to eye coordination. It was laughable trying to get the tights on!

Checkpoint 6 I knew very well having offered the recce team a checkpoint there a month prior. Having stopped for what seemed like a few minutes, but was potentially 10, I set off with a bottle loaded with water and another with Coca Cola.

I could relate to her struggle
PPFFFFTTTT!!!! Coke bubbles were sprayed all up my arm and over my head. I laughed out loud and quickly pulled open the cap to let out some of the built up gas out and then put it back on. Laughing still, I took another few steps PPFFFFTTTT!!!! "Oh for goodness sake" I remember shouting. Again I pulled open the cap, but this time drank about a third to reduce the gas build up and replaced the cap. Yup, another step and PPFFFFTTTT!!!! And this time before I even got to the cap it was PPFFFFTTTT!!!!ing again. I drank at least half of what was left and then gently held the bottle as shock-absorbingly as I could for fear of spray going everywhere again.

But as soon as I started to run again, the most intense shivers and coldness hit me. My teeth chattered and I threw down my pack and ripped out my waterproof as fast as I could. I was freezing! My arms were shaking and even fully zipping up my jacket and throwing up my hood I had to start running as fast as I could (a gentle jog at best) to warm up again. It was shocking how quickly the heat went out of me. Either it was a reaction to the cold Coke, the high winds on the open car park or that I was stopped at the checkpoint standing still for 10 minutes. But it made me pay immediate respect to what I was wearing and how quickly it could happen again.

Shortly after checkpoint 6 was where I had to let Tony go ahead. My ankles and shins were deeply painful at this point and his running pace was still really strong. I appreciated the company, as did he, but I would never want to intentionally hold someone back. He'd come in 13th at 18:27 in the end.

For the next x minutes or hours, I honestly don't remember how long exactly I ran / walked on my own. I did enjoy stopping and turning my heard torch off to look up at the stars. I saw a few shooting stars and gazed In awe for a few moments before carrying on. I also used that time to look back, as I was sure Bex would be catching up at any point. Whilst I'd seen Justin and Bex at Goring to know they were OK, I hadn't seen Ilsuk and I was hoping he was OK.

The Ridgeway route
A few people went by, one guy even went by twice, having got a little lost. But otherwise it was just me. I had to get the map out once for one slightly iffy double-junction. I was sure I was right, but why not take the 2 minutes to check before heading off for miles in the wrong direction? That was the difference between the day section and the night. Not that the darkness made it harder, but that at night the route was along longer and straighter paths, which meant less navigation posts. Which equally meant one mistake could potentially not be found out for a very long while.

Whilst looking back at one point, I saw a light in the distance and before too long it was upon me and as I turned to offer my best to the runner, I heard "Seanie". Lo and behold it was Justin. I was thrilled he was there and he instantly gave me a boost. Asking if I could tag along, he kept up a great pace and I chugged on behind.

Clearly he was in much much better shape than I was and he asked me the best question of the night, "have you been eating enough and regularly?". Naturally, I said yes. A silly knee-jerk reaction, but then pondering it for a while I realised I hadn't been. Sure I'd been picking at a few bits at the checkpoints, and I did have a decent jacket potato at Goring, but nothing significant in comparison to the 9,400 odd calories my Garmin said I'd burned throughout the event.

Elevation profile of The Ridgeway Challenge
Having someone to chase down and keep the pace was great, but my ankles and shins were still causing me untold trouble. I was having to dab my right foot on the ground on all but the lightest downhills (and there seemed to be no end of them) and when we stopped to walk, starting to run again was a case of hobbling and wobbling up to speed before getting the right gait sorted so that I wouldn't cripple my foot completely. I looked a shambles.

Checkpoint 7 went by quickly and I think I was 'not-right' at that point. Probably a bit spaced-out. I'd grabbed some proper food following Justin's questioning and was soon much better.

Halfway to the next check-point I had an epiphany about taking some pain killers and ibuprofen. Took a handful and voila, my aches and pains were gone. It was amazing whilst it lasted (30 minutes or so) and I could even keep up with Justin-the-Juggernaut too.

Checkpoint 8 had a fireplace. Why do you tempt me oh checkpoint? It immediately warmed me to my very centre and I took the opportunity to linger for a few moments whilst I scoffed a banana. This checkpoint, and in fact like all of them, had some lovely people who we're volunteering their time to support us in doing something we wanted to do. Awesome people. Awesome salted potatoes too.

Checkpoint 9 felt like forever away, and then this is the one thing I guess I really didn't like about The Ridgeway Challenge. A lot of the course, a lot more than I would have ever thought, was on road. Not road-road, but concrete or solid pathway. I'd always imagined most of the Ridgeway, like its start, to be off-road trail. But again, if I'd ask the right questions in advance I would have known this.

Pooch and I reunited at the finish
Heading into 9, I saw that I had a missed call from Ruth, my wife, and so called her back to see if all was OK. I should have known that this wasn't her usual sleepy-talk, so she must have already been up. But I wasn't switched on enough to notice. She said she was at home, but lo and behold getting to 9 and there she was with Chewie, my pooch, in tow. The dog went nuts and I got a thorough welcome from her and a nod from the wife. Marriage, innit.

Anyway, 9 had hot dogs. At this point I could have been dreaming, but hot dogs just seemed so darn right. I scoffed two and sat back happy with a warm tea and 2 sugars. However, because it was day light, and  Justin and I were surrounded by our loved ones, it almost felt like it was done already, but no, there was still 6 miles left to go.

The 6 miles actually went by relatively quickly (did I black out?). The sense of the finish was with me, and whilst I honestly couldn't muster a run at times, I was still satisfied. I don't think Justin realised how much I dug deep to finish the last mile or so with a run. I really gave it my all. And then oddly, the old competition hound kicked in, and I could have sprinted the last 100 metres to drop him and take the glory. But we ran in together in a joint 18th in 19 hours and 38 minutes.

Meet Junior
Just writing this yarn was tiring enough and if you've gotten this far, then you've probably just done a reading-ultra! But I must say a big thanks to everyone from the day. It was one hell of a challenge, well organised, with great people in and about the event and with lots of memorable moments that will stay with me 'til the painkillers kick in.

Information about the event
Full results for The Ridgeway Challenge 2014
More pics from the event (nothing amazing, sorry)
Read Justin Bateman's Ridgeway race report
Garmin data for the nerds