Stour Valley Path 100

I need a challenge. It helps me focus and motivates me to work, whether in my job or my running. The Stour Valley Path was always going to me my longest race of the year, but my goal was not just to complete it, but to run it fast. Last year I completed a 100 mile race, so this year the challenge had to be different. Unlike the North Downs Way 100, where I walked most of the last 18 miles, I wanted to run the entire race.

However, I knew a ‘no walking’ rule would be a foolish goal for a trail ultra. There will always be sections that are not runnable – too steep, too technical, too muddy and deep, or just when trying to eat. So my goal was to complete the race in 10 hrs or less, and keep every 10k split at a respectable pace (55 – 65 mins).

Training went reasonably well, although my Achilles problem seems to have become a chronic condition now; 18 months and I can’t shift it. This limited the number of back to back long runs I managed, but I was feeling confident, and the recent track sessions with my club have improved my speed.

Come race day, I chatted to a few other runners and made my way to the start. I knew that the first mile or so was along the road, but then the route turned on to a dyke with a narrow path and no passing places, so when we set off, I settled in just behind the leaders. Keeping with them meant I didn’t have to stop and open each of the dozen or so gates, and the pace was not too quick.

However after a few miles I let the leading pair (Sam Robson & Barry Miller) pull away. Not for long though as they missed a turn, and though I called them back, I was now at the front. The three of us ran together for a while, until again Sam started to pull clear. He was just leaving CP 1 as we arrived, but we again caught up with him when we stopped in a field to check which was the correct path.

After 17 miles, Sam had slowed up but Barry and I kept up a consistent pace, going through the 10k splits in 51, 49 and 53 mins. The next section had a few recently ploughed fields to cross, and we both chose to walk these. Its amazing how much weight an inch of mud adds to your shoes, so it was a relief to get back to firmer ground and scrape it off. We arrived a CP 2, and as at the first check point the team there were very helpful, topping up water bottles and offering a range of snacks, as well as encouragement.

Barry and I left the checkpoint together, posing for the camera and generally enjoying ourselves.  The section to the next checkpoint (Long Melford at 33 miles) had looked straightforward on the map, and there were no real navigation challenges. We ran into Cavendish together, but by the time we left the village Barry was some way behind me. I do most of my training alone, but its great to run with someone too, and I’d enjoyed chatting with Barry about his Centurion Grand Slam and other races. However in a race like this you need to run at your own pace, and I felt comfortable with my steady 8 min mile pace. With stops for gates, stiles and road crossing I was still averaging 8:45, and slightly ahead of schedule.

My only navigational scare came in the village of Long Melford. After passing the church and running down the High Street, I suddenly panicked thinking I must have missed a turn. There were plenty of people about, but none seemed to know where the path was. However I took out the laminated maps that Matthew the race director had provided, and eventually found a local who pointed out where the library was. Back on track, no bonus miles run and only a few minutes delay. I had not expected my family to meet me until CP 4, so was thrilled to see my over excited children running towards me as I approached CP3. After a quick drink and topping up the bottles I left, just as another runner arrived.

I’ve never won a race, or indeed held the lead, and I had a strange surge of adrenalin at this point. After running on my own for the last 7 or 8 miles I suddenly didn’t want to get caught, and seeing another runner gave me a fright. However I quickly gave myself a lecture. I’d run just over half the race and still had nearly 30 miles to run. I needed to run at my own pace and not worry about anyone else. If someone passed me, I’d let them go. After all, anything could happen with so far to go…

The river was getting wider here, and the valley floor flatter, so there was some good fast sections through Sudbury, and nearly didn’t notice my wife and children waving at me from the Mill Hotel. The route then turns away from the river a little, but it’s not hilly!

Check Point 4 was outside a pub (they plan these checkpoints well!), and I grabbed some more coke and walked out of the check point eating a sausage roll. My legs were starting to feel a little sore, particularly my hips, and getting back into a run was a struggle, but i crossed the railway line and then a bridge over the river, and everything seemed fine.

The route then went across a field to another stile, and this is where my race ended. As I stepped up on the stile and swung my left leg to go over the fence, my hip cramped up and went into spasm, and i literally fell off the stile and back into the field. I spent several minutes hopping around in pain and trying to free it up, before eventually getting over the stile. The path here was flat, but my hip was still painful and when i tried to run i could feel it cramping again. I walked on another mile or so, and tried to run a few paces, but couldn’t stretch out and free up my hips.

I realised my goal was now unachievable, and spent a few minutes debating with myself about whether to pull out or try and walk on to the finish. I chose to pull out and phoned my wife asking her to meet me at the nearest road junction.

The first 70km

The first 70km

In hindsight, I now believe I could have finished the race, but stopping was the right choice. On Sunday I could barely walk, but it was not the usual post race pain in calves and quads but my hip flexors. Walking downstairs was fine, but going up was painful. By Monday everything was loosening up and a gentle yoga session helped.

There are at least a few positives to take from the day. I ran the first 70k on schedule for a 10 hour finish, and with a bit more work on strength and flexibility, i’m convinced that sub 10 hr 100k is possible.

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