Battling the brambles Harold’s way

The little known true history of the Norman conquest. An expedition into the wilderness to uncover the real reasons the Anglo-Saxon army of King Harold were defeated in October 1066.

Background

King Edward the Confessor died on 5th January 1066 with no heirs. A council of Anglo-Saxon noblemen (the Witan) was convened and chose Harold Godwinson, Edward’s son-in-law, as his successor and he was duly crowned. However there were three other claimants to the throne – his brother Tostig Godwinson; Harald Hardrada the Norwegian King; William Duke of Normandy.

King Harold was anticipating an attack from William of Normandy, so was stationed with his army in the south of England.

However in the late summer of 1066 Hardrada lead a Norwegian army into England. They joined forces with Tostig and prepared to attack York. After defeating a small English army at the Battle of Fulford, they captured York.

Harold and his army headed north, making the journey from London to York (185 miles) in only four days, and catching Hardrada off guard. They surprised the Norwegian army and defeated them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September. Both Hardrada and Tostig died in the fighting.

Harold’s victory celebrations were short lived. Three days later the Norman army of William landed on the beach at Pevensey Bay. Harold turned his troops round and marched back to London and then on to the south coast and into battle again at the Battle of Hastings. 500 miles on foot for the entire army in just 2 weeks!

Not since Pheidippides’ epic trip from Athens to Sparta and back and then to Marathon and back has such an endeavour taken place. Pheidippides’ heroics have been honoured in the equally epic ultramarathon “Spartathlon”, and now finally we have a race to honour King Harold and his Anglo-Saxon warriors. The 1066 100

The race is a collaboration between Richard Weremiuk and Mark Cockbain, and surprisingly, given their reputations, only replicates the final stage of the march. The 100 miles from London to the site of the battle of Hastings – Battle Abbey. No doubt they are still planning the full version: London to York, York to London, London to Battle…

The race start

The race has a 9am start so I was able to get a train into London and out to Barnes rather than pay for an expensive hotel. Registration was a two minute affair – no need for a kit check. The joint RDs wanted to keep it simple – no mandatory kit and only two rules: no pacing, no hiking poles. Chainmail, swords and battleaxes were not required, although a machete would have been useful – more on that subject later. The route was not going to be marked with tape, but there were new 1066 “Harold’s Way” waymarks, and a GPS file of the route had been shared with all competitors. We were advised we would need it. They weren’t wrong.

The start was Barne Elms sports ground, and to help thin out the field before leaving we had to do a lap of the cricket pitch before heading out onto the road. I had positioned myself in the vanguard. After a couple of hundred meters we joined the Thames Path. The route would have us follow this all the way to Crayford, some 30 miles to the East. Mostly the Thames Path is easy to follow, but there are a few sections where it diverts away from the riverside. Fortunately I work in London, and many lunchtime runs have been by the river. From Battersea Park to the Isle of Dogs felt like my home patch. I even ran right past the office after 11 miles.

Checkpoint One was 15 miles into the race at a primary school, and our first chance to re-provision. I had to stop and use the toilets – running in the woods you can go anywhere, but not so easy in central London. It was already warm and it would be another 20 miles before the next CP, so I filled the 1.5l bladder in my pack as well as two 500ml soft flasks for the front pockets. Did the Anglo-Saxon warriors have race vests, or just a pig’s bladder toed over the shoulder? Such questions would haunt me all day.

The bit in the middle

Straight after CP one I had to cross the Thames via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Clearly the race was taking a few liberties with historical authenticity at this point, but I suspect this part of Harold’s Way is now the A2, and not much fun to run along.

I ran most of the next section on my own, catching and passing a couple of runners along the way. It was flat and an easy trail down to the Thames Barrier, and then beyond before a rather dull concrete path looping around various industrial units, until finally reaching the Crayford marshes and heading inland along the Darent River. There were a few guys riding motorcross bikes around, and chucking up clouds of dust. Not something Harold’s boys would have been bothered by.

Checkpoint 2 was outside the church in Dartford, and I only stopped briefly to refill my flasks with water. I was running in third place at this stage, but already struggling with my longtime injured left Achilles, and taking longer walk breaks to try and manage the issue.

In Darenth village I had a very pleasant surprise. As I walked up Wood Lane, I saw my children shouting at me. I hadn’t expected to see them so early in the race, but Sarah had driven out to find me, complete with a hamper of fruit and sandwiches. She even had some ice, so I shoved some under my hat to help keep me cool. They offered to meet me at Istead Rise, another 5 miles further on, with an iced coffee. While iced coffee is also not strictly historical, Harold’s army did this journey at the end of September, not early July, and with no Global Warming to bother them i’m sure the weather was perfect.

When I reached Istead, they were waiting with more food and a delicious iced coffee from Costa. The next section was one of the most scenic of the day – through the village of Cobham, then the woods and Ranscombe Nature Reserve. As I jogged through the woods I heard a bellowing grunt from the undergrowth, which spurred me into a much faster run up the hill than I would normally try. A thousand years ago these same beasts roamed the land, and although I couldn’t see it I kept running hard despite the gradient. A picture of the beast is below…

It was only a few more miles to Rochester and Checkpoint 3 at the castle. Rochester Castle was built by the Normans, after Harold’s journey, so I’m sure when he rested here it was very different. Sarah and the children were here again, along with the CP volunteers. I picked up my headtorch, and more food from my drop bag, but only stayed a couple of minutes. I knew from here the route would follow the North Downs Way up to Blue Bell Hill, so was expecting a bit of a hike.

After leaving the NDW I had a couple of minor navigation errors. I had the GPX file of the route loaded to my Garmin, and was following it, but there were a couple of places where I took the wrong turn where the path forked, and either had to back track, or work my way back to the trail around the edge of a field. Finally I crossed over the M20 and turned down to Allington Locks. I’d asked Sarah to meet me here at the Malta Inn. Sure enough she was there, and my mother and sister had also come out to the pub for dinner and to meet me. There was also a group supporting another runner (Michael), who was now about a mile ahead of me in 2nd place, so a lot of cheering when I arrived.

I stopped to change into some fresh clothes for the night, and enjoy a quick snack. Sarah had ordered me a pint, and mum had a couple of pork pies for me to take. After stopping for 5 minutes I said goodnight to the kids as it was getting late. The beer was a DNF! A half pint would have been enough.

Running on the riverbank with a head torch on was attracting all the bugs so I had to go slow and breathe through my nose or risk a mouthful of insects. Someone was setting off fireworks as I ran through Maidstone town centre. They had a box full of them firing off on the footpath, but finished just as I got there, so I only had to deal with the smoke.

Crossing Tovil bridge there was an ad-hoc aid station, offering food and drink, and another surprise – the kids had persuaded Sarah to let them stay up a little later, so they were all there wishing me good luck for the night section – top crewing!

The night section

Leaving Tovil, there was a climb up the road, and my Achilles was throbbing again, so I walked up. I was having a bit of a low moment, when a cheery voice called out from a parked van, offering a cup of tea. I decided to stop and accept this offer. He was crewing for his wife Helen, and I’d seen him a few times on the route. Helen was apparently just behind me, and sure enough by the time I finished my tea she had arrived. We set off together, and it was good to have some company on the next few miles into CP 4 at Park Wood. Chatting helped take my mind off my injury worries and we made fairly good time.

I asked for another tea at the checkpoint, and told Helen I would catch her up. However when I left the CP, I almost immediately got lost. The directions I’d been given at the CP didn’t tally with the GPX file on my watch and it took a few minutes to work out where I was and get back on course. See below for my aimless wandering in the wood…

My route south via CP4…

Now on track I picked up the pace, trying to catch Helen. I wasn’t chasing for a race position, so much as wanting to run with someone for a while. A mile and a half further on I entered an orchard, keeping the hedge on my right hand side. Soon I saw a headtorch moving on a track below me off to the right. Assuming it was Helen I called out, but it wasn’t her, it was Michael who had gone off course and was trying to find the correct route. I climbed down through the hedge to join him and help work out where we were. Both our GPS devices showed us off the route, so we circled around the orchard looking to get back on the path. Eventually the dot on the watch screen intersected the line showing the route and we were on track. We turned right and broke into a run to make up lost time. Chatting away we carried on running for a good 15 minutes until we saw another head torch coming down the lane towards us.

Round the orchard and then north again!

We stopped him to tell him he was going the wrong way. He wasn’t. I couldn’t believe him when we said we were running north towards Maidstone, but after double checking on the Viewranger app on my phone, it became obvious we had rejoined the path in the orchard and then run the wrong way.

Slowly the three of us trudged up the hill. I think Michael and I were both feeling rather despondent. Our new buddy Chris, probably couldn’t believe he had made up two race positions so easily.

We continued on together for a while now. It started raining as we entered Staplehurst, so we stopped to put jackets on, and carried on. However the walk breaks were now getting longer and more frequent. You could say we were walking with short run breaks. All three of us had independently checked out the section from Staplehurst to Battle and knew is was a 6.5 hour run with fresh legs, so would be at least 8 in the dark and with 70+ miles in the legs.

There were no major navigation issues after Staplehurst. We had to stop and double check the route a few times, and were pleasantly surprised that a few hay meadows had been cut and the route was a little easier than when we ran it before. A few of the really nasty bits had even been changed – the route modified by sympathetic Race Directors! We arrived at the Sissinghurst checkpoint (CP 5) together, and only stayed a few minutes before heading out. The sky was slowly get brighter now, despite the persistent rain, and it wasn’t long before we could pack away the head torches. We were making slow progress still and starting to wonder why no one had caught us, when a pair of fresh looking runners came up behind us, and shot passed as we went through a hop garden.

The final stretch

The final checkpoint was due to be at Bodiam Castle, but we were told that because of the rain had been moved to the village hall at Sandhurst. The three of us ran in together at 7am. Only 12 miles to go! Michael told us not to wait for him, as he wanted to take a few minutes and sort himself out. Chris and I were about to leave when Sarah arrived. She had woken up early and heard the rain so driven down with fresh dry kit and a thermos. The racedrone tracker had helped her find me. Chris ran on while I took some food for the final stage and a fresh hat.

I thought I would catch Chris, but he was obviously enjoying a second wind and was out of sight. I ran the next mile or so, with no walk breaks but didn’t see him. As I ran down to Bodiam Castle I could see him in the distance making his way around the field over the river. I carried on towards Seddlescombe, and as I jogged down through a field towards the village, I heard a car passing slowly in the lane behind the hedge. A quick glance was enough to recognise the family car, so at the next stile I climbed over and flagged them down. Sarah and the children were in the car with a takeaway coffee. A Costa never tasted so welcome. It was only a mile to the village, so I decided to walk and enjoy the coffee, and I would see them there to return the empty cup.

I knew the last 3.4 miles from Seddlescombe to the finish would be grim. When I ran the section a month earlier it was very overgrown, and sure enough it still was. I walked most of it, ducking under brambles, trying to dodge nettles and thistles, but still getting scratched to shreds and stung to bits. The mad dash across the A21 was only slightly life threatening, and then more nettles before starting the climb up to Battle itself.

The final mile is a bit of a slog, up the hill to Battle. However I eventually made the climb and broke into a jog down Mount Street, before the final left turn onto the High Street. It was still very quiet in the town although it was after 10am by now. The peace was quickly shattered when my two children spotted me and ran down to greet me then jog the final few meters to the finish line at the doorway to the abbey.

With the best support crew

I finished in a time of 25hrs, 18 minutes in 6th place. This was my slowest ever ‘100’ mile race, but with the extra detours I took, it was also my longest ‘100’ mile race at 110 miles.

The End

King Harold died at the end of his ultramarathon. In fact so did Pheidippedes… these long foot races may not be good for your health! History tells us that Harold was shot in the eye with an arrow from a Norman archer. However history is written by the winners, so this established truth needs to be questioned and re-assessed. The account by William of Poitiers is very flattering about the strength and bravery of the Norman army. However this overlooked text from the Anglo-saxon chronicles is worth examining:

Harold was informed of this (the invasion) and he assembled a large armie and came against him at the hoary apple-tree. Much weakened by bramble and thistle, inflamed by nettle and sore of foot the armie rested atop Senlac ridge.

And William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array. But the king nevertheless fought hard against him, with the men who were willing to support him, and there were heavy casualties on both sides.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles- British Library

A recently discovered section of the Bayeux Tapestry clearly shows Harold and his army’s struggles to reach the battlefield, before their final demise.

Recently discovered fragment of the Bayeux Tapestry

Many thanks to Mark and Richard for putting on this race. While the terrain looks benign, it’s a tough challenge, but an enjoyable one. Thanks also to all the volunteers who make these events possible, and to the runners i met and spent time with on the journey.

Advertisements

GUCR – 2nd attempt

It all started so well…

Friday night after registering I had dinner and a couple of beers in O’Neills, catching up with the other runners before getting an early night. I actually managed a decent sleep before getting up at 4:45 for a quick breakfast, and a 5 minute walk to the start line.

My plan was to run easily for the first few miles, and I managed to rein in my enthusiasm and start at a 9 minute / mile pace, well behind the leading pack. I was entered as a supported runner, but my crew were not due to meet me until Hatton Locks (22 miles into the race), so I was carrying plenty of food, and taking walk breaks every 25 minutes to eat.

I arrived at the 1st checkpoint only 1 minute off my schedule, and only stopped to top up my flask with water. At Hatton Locks, the 2nd checkpoint, I saw my two children first and they jogged with me towards Sarah, who helped refill my flasks and provide some more food. From now on I would see them every hour of so, at various meeting points along the canal.

Then I got lost…

Not physically lost. My body was still running along the Grand Union Canal, but my head has taken a wrong turn and gone somewhere else. Normally I am very disciplined in a race, but I started taking random walk breaks, and even forgot the basics of eating and drinking properly. For some reason I just couldn’t focus on the process. It was a lovely day, and perfect for running, but a large part of me just wanted to be somewhere else.

It became a mental battle: part of me looking for an excuse to drop out; part of me searching for the motivation to carry on.

I told Sarah I wanted to drop but my explanation “I can’t be arsed” got short shrift and I was sent on my way.

At about the 60 mile point I tripped on a tree root, and after stumbling a few more paces hit the dirt face first. I picked myself up and wiped myself down with a buff. Unfortunately there was no real injury. A grazed elbow and bruised thigh was not the sort of ‘gory race injury’ that I could use to justify a DNF.

Mid race reset…

I arrived at Navigation Bridge and saw the children on the other side of the canal in the pub garden. Sarah was getting then some dinner. The met me on the bridge, and handed over a head torch, as it would be dark in an hour or so. Both Ian and Gill Thomas were at the CP, so I stopped for some soup and a chat to try and reboot my race.

Leaving the CP I was feeling better, and tried to get back into a regular run / walk rhythm. Looking at the splits from my Suunto, I actually picked up the pace here, and was looking forward to the night section. Generally I enjoy running through the night, and felt that if i could stay focused this could still be a good result. I was actually only about 45 minutes behind my target time, despite slacking off at every opportunity.

Milton Keynes came and went with no incidents. I lingered a little too long at Bridge 99, but my crew were taking a break to try and grab some sleep, and a hot cup of tea from the volunteers at the checkpoint went down very well.

I arrived at Soulbury Three Locks at about midnight. The path runs right in front of the pub, so there were plenty of people about, and one group of girls asked what I was doing. When I said I was running to London I’m not sure they believed me, but when the penny dropped they gave me some cash. It wasn’t enough for a train fare or taxi, so i’ll give it to charity.

Next stop was the Tesco at Leighton Buzzard where Sarah and the children were waiting. Again I made good time along the tow path, and arrived in good spirits. They had a pot noodle for me and some warmer kit as it was getting colder on the canal.

The next section is very rural. I was running along the tow path, dodging the frogs on the path and the moths that are attracted to the headtorch. One of the moths managed to get trapped between my glasses and my eye, fluttering around and nearly putting me in the water. Fortunately I managed to get my glasses off to free it and stop short of the water’s edge.

Lost again…

Marsworth Junction and I don’t get on with each other. In 2017 I spent 15 minutes trying to work out which way to go. This year I was determined not to make the same mistake, and approached it with a map in my hand, carefully following the marked route. I swear those maps are wrong. It doesn’t help that you have to swap from Map 4 to Map 5 at the critical section, but I finally made my way to the Checkpoint, but from the wrong direction after a detour via Watery Lane.

I stopped at the CP for a tea and Sarah had more hot noodles for me. My daughter was up despite it being 3am, and thought i had seriously injured myself. I had an orange stain all over my eye, face and glasses – Moth poo!

Cleaned up a restored I set off again.

The final drag …

Leaving the CP I was very stiff. Looking back at my Suunto data is looks like I sat there for twenty minutes. I walked for a while to try and loosen up, and then tried a gentle jog to catch the runner in front. I managed to catch Sandra and her buddy, but my left Achilles was seizing up, and causing me to limp, landing heavily on my right leg. I walked for a while.

Even a brisk walk was making me limp. I tried a few different strategies: shuffling jog, power hike, gentle amble… anything faster than 25 min / mile pace was an awkward limp. My mind might be back in the race, but now it felt like my body was giving up. I have history in this race (see GUCR 2017 for the full story), and it ended badly. My left Achilles had seized up, but I had limped on for 40 miles before quitting. In the end my crew had to carry me from the canal as I couldn’t even stand. I’d spent a month on crutches (with severe periostitis), and needed a six month break from running.

So I now had a choice: limp the remaining 40+ miles to Little Venice and risk another serious injury; walk very slowly and resign myself to another 18hrs

I plodded on for a while until Dudswell lock and bridge 138. I crossed to the right hand side of the canal and sat on the bench. It was nearly 5am, and I decided to throw in the towel. After phoning Sarah and asking her to come and find me, I took my pack off, lay down and promptly fell asleep.

Two days later and physically I was recovered. My race ending injury was little more than fatigue, and my only real issues were all in my head.

Crawley A.I.M. 24hr Race

We drove the short distance to Crawley on Saturday morning, arriving at 10:30 and soon set up our gazebo. Sarah was going to crew for me all night, while the children were staying for the start and then getting collected by my sister and mother later in the afternoon. There were plenty of familiar faces from Spartathlon and other races, so the atmosphere was very relaxed, and i was still pinning my race numbers on a couple of minutes before the start.

img_8718

At exactly 12:00 we were off. I was planning on running at a steady 9:15 minute/mile pace for the first few hours and had worked out that was 2:18 per lap. I was very happy to hit that number on lap 1, but it felt very restrained, and i had to focus on keeping the pace slow. 

The 6 hour race started at the same time as the 24 hour race I had entered, so it wasn’t long before the race leaders were lapping me. One of my goals was to try and be really disciplined with nutrition – to eat every 30 minutes during a short walk break, and Sarah had a detailed plan to what to offer up. The children were a great help here, running across to the infield and handing me a sandwich / gel / drink etc. For a while they were also counting off my laps each time i passed the gazebo… 90, 91, 92 etc. This was a little too much, but fortunately they soon bored of that game.

Time goes very slowly on the track. Every 400 meters you pass a large clock, and although i tried hard not to look at it, it seemed like only a couple of minutes had passed every time i looked up. Despite this things were not at all dull. The race was quickly getting strung out with the leaders pushing a few kilometers ahead on the board, but still never more than 200 meters ahead or behind. It was easy to fall into step with someone, share a few laps and a chat, and that really helped the time pass.

My right knee started getting uncomfortable after about 3 and a half hours. I had picked up an injury in training about three weeks before the race, so had backed off with my training – forced into an early taper. A diagnosis of bursitis triggered by tight quads was followed by some massage to loosen the muscles and ultrasound and icing of the knee. Everything seemed to be on the mend, but i’d not had a rigorous test until race day.

After four hours on we track, we were asked to reverse direction – as a track newbie i had no idea how this would work, but it was really simple. There were timing mats on the start line, and a couple of race marshalls stood on the line and asked us to loop around them and head back the way we came, staying out in lanes two and three until all runners on the lap had reversed. It was all very easy, and it actually felt great to have changed direction. My knee felt better and everything seemed to be fine again.

One of my goals was to keep moving at all times, and my only stop in the first 5 hours was a quick toilet break. I was taking on food and drink during walk breaks and never needing to stop. However, five hours in and my knee was getting sore again. With 30 miles run this is typically when I have a low patch. I regularly give up running for ever and this point in the race.

There was a first aid tent by the timing mats, so i decided to stop for a few minutes and get some treatment on my leg. Lindley Chambers was looking after the first aid tent, so massaged my quad to try and free it up a little before taping the knee. I told Sarah I’d push on for a bit and see how it felt.

Looking at the timing sheet i was running steady 2:20 laps at this stage, which fits with my memory of feeling much better. The six hour race was also keeping me entertained, as i could check the leader board and look out for the lead runners. Several had started to pick up the pace and push for the last thirty minutes, and there was even a sprint finish or two as the clock clicked on towards 6:00:00.

The weather had been cold all day. We even had a hail shower, but it only lasted ten minutes. However with my personal aid station never more than 2 minutes away I had manged to grab a jacket and stay warm and dry. However once the sun had dipped behind the leisure centre building and we were in shadow it was getting very cold.

Sarah bought me a hot noodle soup, and i kept moving – 30 minutes run, then walk and eat.  After seven hours on track my knee was sore again, and even feeling wobbly – like it would collapse on me. The strapping was now irritating and making it feel worse, so for the first time i stopped by my drinks table and sat in the chair to rip the tape off. I was starting to wonder if continuing was a good idea, but i wasn’t ready to stop.

There is also a 12 hour race at Crawley, and that was scheduled to start at 8pm. I saw a few runners arriving and getting set up, and knew it would be getting busy on the track soon. We were due to change direction again at 8pm, so i wondered how that would work with the race start, but again it was simple. At ten minutes to eight the race marshalls were back on the start line, instructing us to turn. Three minutes later we were all heading round the track in the traditional anticlockwise direction and a few minutes later the 12 hours runners were lining up on the outside of the track for their start.

Fifteen minutes later i decided to stop. The knee pain was back, but more significantly i could feel it was affecting my gait, both when running and when walking. The most obvious sign was a blister developing on my heel where i never normally get them, but also my hip was feeling the strain. I stopped and told Sarah that i didn’t want to risk further injury and would stop soon. I asked her to check the timing to see how many laps i’d done – 191.

No point quitting until i hit 200, so after a couple of minutes rest i was back on the track, and counting down the last couple of laps.

200 and done!

Quitting when i did meant we were home and warm before midnight.

Why did i DNF?

On a scale of 1 to 10 I doubt the pain in my knee ever exceeded a 4. However after GUCR in 2017, I am scared of getting an injury that will stop me running for any length of time. What made me decide to stop was the realisation that i couldn’t maintain a good running form, and the knowledge that limping to the finish would risk more injuries. There was also the knowledge that it was already really cold, and forecast to get worse. Asking Sarah to sit out in the freezing weather all night, while i smash out an epic performance is one thing, but this was going to be a slow miserable grind, and way short of any target i would be proud of.

Thanks to the organisers and volunteers for putting on a great race.

Photographs by Jon Lavis, Anna & William Barker

Sevenoaks Circular

This was the 44th edition of the LDWA Sevenoaks Circular, and i’m embarrassed to say it was my 1st.

The start was at 8am. After an early breakfast I left home at 7am and was parked up, registered and enjoying a cup of tea by 7:30. This event is so local I don’t know why i’ve never done it before. With a 24 hour race coming up soon, i wanted to have a good 5 hour run under my belt and get in some steady pacing. Obviously hilly and muddy trails are not exactly terrain specific training for running laps of a track, but are a lot of fun.

The start / finish is at at West Heath school, and after a short road section the route heads into Knole Park. I had been chatting to some friends at the start, but i was being more aggressive with my pacing, aiming for some early 8:30 miles before the route got too muddy so pushed ahead, just behind the lead runners.

After Knole Park the route headed out to the East into the open country side and dropped downhill to Ightham Mote and then Shipbourne Church.

Shipbourne Church

We then started to loop round to the south, across the Fairlawn estate toward Hildenborough. My daughter has her riding lessons here, so i recognised this section as we crossed Riding Lane and headed towards the A21. This is about the lowest point in the entire route, and i knew there were a couple of big climbs coming up, so i took a gel in preparation. I was running with a couple of other guys – one in long sleeved top and tights and the other in t-shirt and shorts. They were following the route on a gps watch while I had the paper route guide, so between us we had no navigation issues.

Perfect prep for the track

The second checkpoint was in the village hall in Weald, and then the route starts to climb up Wickhurst Road. I walked the steeper sections, and eventually reached the summit and then there was a long steady descent through Mill Bank Woods. A runner caught me here (red shirt man), and told me this was a good downhill stretch, and then flew off into the distance. The weather had been glorious all morning, with bright sunshine and light winds. However as i ran into Dryhill park it clouded over and started raining. This was the third checkpoint, and after topping up with some water, I grabbed a bag of mini cheddars, aiming to eat these on the big climb to Knockholt.  We had caught up with red shirt man at this point, and leaving this CP found another (T-shirt man) who was running towards us having gone the wrong way. Briefly there were five of us running together, but by the time we reached the A25 road crossing two had disappeared and I was back with the two guys i’d been with since CP2. Dashing across the main road was a bit scary, but we were soon running through Chipstead. I was surprised how tranquil the village seemed, being so close the M25/M26 motorways. Over the motorway bridge and then we ran towards Chevening Church.

The guys i’d been running with slowed for a walk up this gradual incline, but i carried on, knowing it was going to get steeper very soon. After the church there is a brief section across a field, and then it is steeply uphill to the North Downs Way. My legs were burning as I hike up here. I’ve done very little hill training this year (with Crawley and GUCR on the schedule it’s not been a priority) and paid the price. Eventually I was at the top, and joined the road into Knockholt.

The checkpoint was in the village hall and had some great looking cheese and tomato rolls, so i helped myself and set off to walk and eat. As i left I saw the guys i’d been with earlier running passed the CP, so called them back. I’d caught three runners in the CP, (red shirt man and two I’d not seen before) but they caught up with me as i enjoyed my snack and strolled down the road. However I started running again soon after and ran with them down the road only to see T-shirt man heading towards us!

Back on the North Downs Way and two of the runners stopped to walk, so now I was running with only red shirt man, and we were playing leap frog with T-shirt man. He was using his phone to navigate, and had done the Knockholt loop clockwise to our anti-clockwise, and was now heading down the field on the other side of the hedge to us. GPS is useful, but you still can’t beat written route guides.

The three of us ran into Duncton Green together and then through the nature reserve. As I caught sight of the Knole Acadamy (a large secondary school), i realised we were going back into the centre of Sevenoaks for the last couple of miles. While it was still rural and secluded I stopped for a toilet break, and then ran up to the main road. I could see red shirt man followed by t-shirt man, but they were powering up Bradbourne Road and I couldn’t catch them.

Although I had a vague idea where i was, it wasn’t until the route directions took me through a wooden door into Knole Park that I recognised the location. There was now only a couple of miles left, but all gently uphill. First through the park and then onto the road. I could see the two runners ahead, but hadn’t the speed to catch up.

Finally the school was in sight, and I jogged up the drive to the main building and the finish. I’d been hoping for 5 hours, but given the muddy conditions i was very happy with a 5:07 finish and third place.

P.S. I’ve been vague with names in this blog, mostly because I didn’t know the names of the guys I was running with. However after checking the results, I realised they were all called David, so using their names would not have improved the narrative.

1st place David in 5:06

2nd place David in 5:06

3rd place David in 5:07

 

 

Spartathlon -wet and windy

10k to go and it’s 2:30 in the afternoon. It’s an easy downhill from the Shell station, then a left turn and along to the Evrotas bridge, before the final mile and a half into the centre of Sparta and the statue of King Leonidas. A jog / walk would see me finished in another hour and a quarter.

It had been raining constantly since 7pm last night, but in the last couple of hours the wind had really picked up. Water was flowing up the road towards me, and broken branches littered the tarmac. Stronger gusts tried to blow me off my feet, and I was holding my hand in front of my face to protect myself from all the flying debris. I needed to run to stay warm, nearly tripped over my own feet as the wind blew me sideways, so resigned myself to walking. A fallen tree was blocking half the road, but a bulldozer was already trying to clear it away. I guess this is the only road to Sparta the local authorities were working to clear. The driver opened his cab door to shout at me. The wind took his words away, but I knew he was offering encouragement.

CP 73 came and went in seconds. No stopping now. Out of the hills the buildings offered some shelter from the wind, so I jogged for a couple of minutes. I suddenly had a panic I was going the wrong way. I looked around. The streets were deserted, no runners ahead or behind. I carried on for another minute, and a police car passed. He stopped, blocking a side road and waved me on. Eventually I saw the bridge and knew where I was. The pedestrian section was flooded with water ankle deep, but seemed safer than the road so I waded through, pausing to watch the muddy torrent flowing beneath the bridge.

CP74 was my final drop bag. A Union Flag for the finish. The checkpoint was abandoned, blown away by the storm. There was a bin bag by the side of the road and I could see runners’ numbers on bags inside, so rummaged through until I found mine. No child escort this year, but I had not been expecting one in the circumstances. I ran on up the main road. A few brave souls came out onto their balconies to cheer. I could see another runner a few hundred meters ahead, but no one behind. Perfect! Last time I’d had to queue at the finish, and this year I wanted King Leonidas all to myself. I could see the guy in front turn right, so walked up to the junction to give him some space. Finally I unfurled the flag, and turned onto the final avenue. A slow jog and a few cheers, but no crowds this year. Everyone was too tired, wet and cold. I heard a shout and looked up. Chris Mills and Paul Rowlinson were there cheering, and taking photos and video. I ran up to the steps and towards the plinth. My foot slipped on the bottom step and I nearly fell face first into the statue, but recovered. For a second time I could kiss the foot of the statue.

img_4159

Although I ran Spartathlon in 2016, it doesn’t feel like a repeat. This was not the same race, but a completely different experience.
Continue reading

Berlin Wall Race

On Saturday 11th August I took part in the Berlin Wall Race. It was 6 years to the day since my first ultra marathon, and I’ve run some good races since then, so with my experience I shouldn’t have felt nervous, but you can’t underestimate a 100 mile race, and last year was nothing but injuries and DNF/DNS , so I was feeling unusually apprehensive.

Training had gone well though so my plan was to get to 50 miles in 7:30 – 8:00 and try to push hard for a sub 16:48 finish.

The Berlin Wall Race is a 100 mile circuit that follows the route of the Berlin Wall. Most of the wall has been destroyed but there are a few remnants preserved for history as well as numerous memorials to the many people killed trying to cross into West Berlin.

Team Barker at the start

The route alternates direction each year and the 2018 event was to be clockwise. The race starts at 6am, at an athletics stadium, with runners doing a lap of the track before heading off towards the wall trail.

Just a mile or so after the start we ran passed the Berlin Wall Memorial with it’s preserved section of wall and an old watch tower. The route was also marked by iron poles lining the pavement along Bernauer Strasse.

The clockwise route means you run the first 10 miles or so through the city, and have to stick to all traffic regulations. Cross a road when the signal is red and you risk disqualification!

As a result runners ended up in groups, as the leader would be held at the light while others caught up.

I ended up in a group with the leading lady, two Americans and half a dozen German runners. The organisers provide a bicycle marshal to accompany the race leader, and having our own marshal to follow made for a very relaxing start as I could ignore route markers (excellent by the way) and take in the sights.

We ran passed the Brandenburg Gate and then through Checkpoint Charlie and shortly after along the East Gallery (a section of wall now used as an outdoor art gallery).

img_7223

Checkpoint Charlie

img_3993

Running past East Side Gallery

Each year the race commemorates a victim who died trying to cross the wall. This year it was Jorg Hartmann, the youngest victim. He was 10 when he was shot while trying to get into West Berlin to see his father in 1966. The DDR authorities claimed he had drowned and maintained this fiction until the wall fell in 1989.

All the runners stopped to lay a toy at his memorial. I wasn’t the only one to shed a tear.

The next 25 miles were easy going and I felt comfortable at my steady 8:40 pace. I had my usual low point at mile 35, when I questioned why I don’t stick to marathons or 50km races, but ignored the negative thoughts. I was soon at the first major check point at the Teltow Sports park, so had access to a drop bag and swapped my now empty 100ml flask for one full of EnduranceFirst fuel. From this point all runners were permitted a bicycle companion, and a lot of runners were using theirs to carry extra water for them. Fortunately the path is wide enough that the extra traffic was never an issue.

A few miles further on and we arrived at a small lake. The next 20 miles were run alongside a series of rivers and lakes as we skirted the edge of Potsdam. This was a really beautiful area to run through. It was warming up now, but I doubt it got over 28C all day, which was great as it had been 34C when I arrived in the city on Wednesday. However I was eating well and my single 600ml water bottle was enough for the 6-7km between each of the 26 check points.

At mile 57 i reached the second major CP and my second drop bag. I’d foolishly put my head torch and reflective bib (both mandatory) in this bag instead of my third drop bag. It was only about 3:30 in the afternoon, and i wouldn’t need them until 9:00.

I was taking regular short walk breaks, but still running most of the time, and keeping my pace to under 10 minutes per mile. However it was getting harder to sustain this, and i knew my target time was sliping away. Importantly though i had no achilles pain or shin pain, so i was happy to adjust my race goal. Although i have a few “100 mile in a day” buckles, i’ve never actually finished a 100 mile race on the same day as i started, as my best times have all had 10am starts. Berlin starts at 6am, so i decided to target a sub 18 finish and get to the line before midnight. This also meant the children would be waiting up for me. I’d agreed with Sarah that if i was having a bad day and lokking at a late finish she would go back to the hotel with the children rather tahn wait at the finish line.

My waist belt was rubbing a little, but i had a spare jar of lube in my 3rd drop bag, so at the Ruderclub Oberhavel checkpoint i could grab this. One of the volunteers kindly offered to rub this into the area on my back that was chafing while i switched from cap and sunglasses to reflective bib and head torch.

There were a lot of runners drinking beer here, but they were all relay event runners rather than solo runners. The event has a 2,4 or even 10+ option for relay teams, so i was regularly being overtaken by some seriously quick men and women. However all of then had words of encouragement for the solo runners.

There were a few more road crossings now, so more enforced stops for the infamous red man, but no where near as many as the first section. The run back into Berlin was on quiet suburban streets and paths alongside the railway line. The batteries in my headtorch had not been new and it was fading badly, so i caught up with the runner in front and his Irish bike companion, following their lights and chatting a little to pass the miles. Eventually i stopped and changed to fresh batteries for the final 5 miles into the city.

At last i could see the park where we had started, and picked up the pace a little. As i turned onto the track i could see Sarah and the kids waiting, so ran to them and then jogged the track with children in tow.

I finished in 17:21:43. 12th place, 6th M50 and 1st Brit.

I’d certainly recommend the event, as it is a flat and fast route (despite the stops for red lights). The large number of aid stations means you can run very light (i had a waist belt with single 600ml bottle), and navigation is super easy, as arrows are spray painted on the road.

The only negative is the awards ceremony. Finishers medals, and buckles (for sub 24hr runners), are handed out at the ceremony on the Sunday, which dragged on for well over 2 hours…  not the best way to spend your recovery day!

The Essex 30

With the Berlin Wall race in August and then Spartathlon looming large I was hoping for a warm race for some good hot weather training. Fortunately the British summer delivered and the race took place in bright sunshine and warm still air.

The 30 mile race is organised by Challenge Running and takes place in conjunction with a 100 and 50 mile race.

Route

The race route is an out and back, and starts at Felsted Village Hall. After a short road section it turns onto the Flitch Way (a former railway line, so straight and flat). After 4.3 miles there is a checkpoint at the old Rayne Station ( now the Booking Hall Cafe) and then you turn around and head back to Felsted. The 100 mile race is 12 laps, 6 for the 50 and 4 for the 30 mile version.

Race day

I drove up in a relaxed mood looking forward to a good long run. With the promise of a flat route I was aiming for a solid steady paced run. I had no real pace plan, but wanted to run to feel and try and be consistent and run with no walk breaks.

I’d not expected to know too many people here, but met up with Gill and Ian Thomas and then Paul Ali at registration so knew I’d have some good company on the route. Before long we were off. I’d been chatting with Ian before the start and found my self on the front row of the start. However Craig Holgate shot passed me and was soon disappearing into the distance. Another runner (Mark Prigg) also passed me, but then we settled into a steady pace toward the Flitch Way. The route itself has a fair bit of shade from the tree cover, but it was already warm at the 9am start and the temperature was building.

Picture of the strat line

Race Start

By the turn around point I had passed Mark, but Craig had pulled out a significant lead. I’ve seen Craig race before and knew he holds the course record, and he looked like he was trying to improve on it!

Out and back laps are often perceived as dull because you get the same scenery again and again, but I do enjoy seeing other runners during the race, and everyone seemed to have a huge smile on their face and offer encouragement to other runners.

The first lap went well, and I managed not to go out too hard. Back at Felsted and Gill offered to refill my flask while I ate some fruit. Ian was just behind me, and he was running the 100, but I knew his target time so expected him to be starting fast.

Lap two was much the same as the first. I’d been focused on not going too fast at the start, but now I was relaxed and in fact ran this lap a little faster. However it was getting hotter and by half way through lap 3 I was starting to regret my kit choice. I have a good waist belt with a 600ml bottle, but decided that the sloshing noise of water in a hard bottle would be annoying. Instead I picked a small waist belt with a 250ml soft flask. For the first couple of sections this was enough, but now I was finding 250ml wasn’t quiet enough for the 4.3 miles between checkpoints. At the end of lap 3 I had to fill my flask, drink it and refill before leaving Felsted, and when I got to the turnaround point I stopped for a good few minutes to drink before heading back.

Two miles from the finish I felt a sharp stabbing pain on the top of my left foot. I stopped immediately and saw a wasp trapped under the tongue of my shoe, with his stinger jabbing into my skin. After flicking it away, hopping up and down and swearing a bit, I hobbled on. Fortunately it didn’t seem to have done much damage so I managed to run in to the finish.

Results

I was happy with my performance and pacing and I ran the entire distance with no walk breaks, although a few stops to drink and beat off predatory bugs. So a good day out.

img_3845-1

My lap times were consistent until lap 4 where I dropped a lot of time, but. that was mostly non moving time. My running speed was solid all the way.

1st place and taking 6mins off his own CR was Craig Holgate in 4:02:09

I finished in 2nd place in 4:49:28

It took a couple of hours and several pints of water, two McDonalds milkshakes in the car, plus more milk and tea at home to rehydrate, but when I finally cracked open a beer I could reflect on a good race. Thanks to Lindley Chambers and the team at Challenge Running for putting on a great event, and I’ll be back for more in future.

img_3839-1