Thursday, 4 August 2016

Helen Cartlidge reports on her first (very muddy) long distance trail race at the North Downs Run

North Downs Run, 30k, 26 June 2016

Unique, scenic, iconic, tough, brutal, hilly, challenging, uplifting... that's how it was described on the T-shirt.

It certainly ticked all those boxes... and muddy, really muddy (it should have given me a clue when it was on the same weekend as Glastonbury!)

The day before, we drove down to my in-laws, who live 10 minutes away from the course. It rained on the journey round the M25, and when we arrived it rained a bit more. I started my pre-race-whinge ritual (often this doesn't start till race day but surprisingly for me,  I was well prepared and started the night before). 

It was going to be wet, muddy, hilly, I didn't have trail shoes, I would end up falling on my bum etc etc. Probably to stop the moaning, my hubby, Arnie, offered to buy me a pair of trail shoes. So, against all general race advice, we went to Bluewater at 8.45pm the night before and purchased my first pair of trail shoes. Gotta love a bit of late night shopping!

Race morning arrived and the weather was... raining (again!) At the race HQ the marshals were wearing head torches and finding race packs in the dark due to a power cut at the sports centre. This, coupled with the fact we met Arnie's cousin, Adam, who knew the route and described conditions as "horrendous", did little to calm my nerves.

I had decided, as this was my first reasonable length trail race, and my training had been a lot skimpier than planned, I would race anonymously, and not in a club vest. However, as I lined up at the start, I felt conspicuous as one of the few NOT wearing a club vest and wearing a new pair of trainers - all the gear, no idea.

The first few kilometres were not too testing, a lap of the sports field and over a golf course. Nothing too bad so far, or too muddy.  The first challenge came at around 7.5-8k where the first steep hill was. It made the St Albans Half look tame in comparison! 

The course was varied with footpaths, through and around fields and meadows, woodland sections, some roads through villages and tracks with gates, stiles and wooden barriers along the way. The marshals were fantastic and  gave  extra info on potential hazards, and even other people using the course, to be aware of. Through the woodland section, each protruding tree root or large rock was highlighted in neon orange spray paint and over hanging branches had tape hanging from them (not that I needed to worry about that!)

8-12k was not undulating but proper hilly! The steepest uphill sections were often a single track path through a field and most people (in my time bracket anyway) walked up. It was somewhat limited to whether the person immediately in front was walking or running, but I was not in any position to overtake anyway.

The weather for the race was ideal - it had eventually stopped raining and was the sort of boring, dull, offensive weather that you wouldn't really enjoy during the summer for anything other than running (or maybe cycling). It was cool, breezy and threatening to rain, although it brightened a little towards the end.

13-20k were more bearable with flatter paths through the woods, albeit with mud and ankle-deep puddles (the new trail shoes were properly tested). The scenery was stunning when it was safe to take your eyes off the ground - wild flower meadows, rolling hills, farms and villages. Around 20k there was another steep climb and (another!) Serpentine lady overtook me but then started walking. We ran at a similar pace for the next 4 kilometres and chatted briefly, until the next water stop. And then she disappeared into the distance and I didn't see her til the finish. Here I wished I had my Striders vest on, so I could try to convince her (and myself!) that I was a more stern opposition for her! Can race vests actually help you run faster or give you a psychological edge??


The last 5k seemed particularly harsh. Although I knew more or less where I was and there was "only a parkrun to go..!" it felt like a long slog. I took a walking break at each incline (only when I saw people ahead stopping to walk, so conceded it must be ok!) I had optimistically convinced myself on the way out, that the last 3k was predominantly downhill. Rather disappointingly, it wasn't, although I did manage to overtake a few runners in the last km, and finished in 2.45.

Being a new experience, I hadn't known what to expect or what target to give myself, but vaguely aimed at under 3 hours so very pleased with the result. As well as a new pair of trainers (which were fine - no blisters), I also wore a different Garmin. I looked at it once, didn't register what info it was giving me, and decided I couldn't really pace a race of this kind so I didn't look at it again. I found it really liberating not to give myself any time goals for each kilometre.

It was tough, it was brutal, ( did I mention it was muddy?) the recovery was worse than a marathon... but I want to do it again, if only to partake in the free cake and post race massage that I managed to overlook at the finish!

Next time I might even do the training I pretended I was going to do... oh, and wear a club vest.

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