Last Sunday Fi and I (plus one sibling and some friends) embarked upon what was quite possibly the most poorly organised, would-be cross country (though unadvertised as such) twenty miler we’d done. At the same time, however, it was also one of the most beautiful. It’s not a long tale, but it’s worth sharing with the gang, I think.
Race preparation started, as usual, the night before. Fi, Phil and Fi 2, or Fiona, arrived at my (parents) house in Minstead, in the New Forest. After a short recce around the farm, we settled down to the Eating Festival that occurs before any long run. My mum had been a star and cooked up a vat of bolognaise, and a 5 litre rice pudding had been slowly cooking in the Esse all day. It’s probably safe to say that we carb loaded for at least two to three people each, but at least we’d have something to call upon when things got tough at mile 14. I was certainly thankful that I’d had my third helpings of rice pudding and ice cream, anyway!
On Sunday morning we made our way to the race start, and that was possibly where the cracks in the race organisation started to show through; with the park and ride. P&R’s are never ideal at races, since you just want to get in quickly and out even quicker, but often they are at least necessary. Alas this time we queued for a half hour to get onto the mini bus to be taken at break-neck speed to our race start, only to find a parking field all buy empty where we could have parked!
Still, we arrived on time and chipped, vaselined and numbered ourselves up for the race briefing delivered by our slightly out of puff race (medical) organiser who’d just raced in on his bike after dealing with an ‘incident’ on the course. Perhaps that was a bad omen?! He told us it was a race of two laps, there would be marshalls en route, and he also mentioned something about an incline at the beginning, but I wasn’t worrying: I’d been assured by the mini bus driver on the way that any hills on the course were, and I quote, “nothing to worry about.”
So, off we set at ten past 10, along a tarmac road near Ringwood in the New Forest, and up a hill. Start as you mean to go on, they say, and I did, only I didn’t realise that it was the flats in the course that would be rare, not the hills. “It was one of the worst routes they could have picked”, retorted my dad when he saw the route RunKeeper had recorded on my phone. Much of it was on the forest but along a busy main road, and we had to content with at least four of what I would consider, Killer Hills. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t normally moan about hills (honest!) but then normally I’m aware they’re coming. What was frustrating about this one was that there was no warning at all that this was going to be a very hilly course. It would have been helpful to know, that’s all we’re saying.
What else would have been helpful to know, was where we were in the race at any one point. Or, at all throughout the twenty – point five – miles! Bar a sign telling us when there was 200m to go, there was absolutely no mile or kilometre signage or even marshall knowledge of how the race was divided. Fortunately I had a voice every 5 minutes telling me where I was and how far ahead of behind my target pace I was achieving, but for the non-Garmin wearing many, this would have been a real issue.
And then there was the water. What water, you may ask? Exactly my point. On one of the hottest days of the year we had only 2 water stations, at 2/12, and 9/19 miles. Who needs water at 2 and 19 miles, and with one at the bottom of a steep hill you ask again. Exactly. There is only one thing more unpleasant than gels, and that’s swallowing them without liquids! I’ve learnt that carrying one’s own water is a small inconvenience but a definite must when trying any race for the first time.
I’ve been fairly damning up until now, but it wasn’t all bad. It was absolutely beautiful to be out in the open forest, and it was great to run with a new crowd from different parts of the South. It was also a joy to leave my elder sibling behind, just this once. I shouldn’t gloat, but it just never happens. Only this year when she isn’t doing a marathon did I have the chance to get ahead, so I’ll take the 15 minute lead on her and save that up for the future, I think.
I ran past the line at 2.57, ten minutes slower than last year’s 20 miler, but when the fastest half marathon finisher was 1.46, you can start to understand the difficulty of the course and race conditions perhaps. I took advantage of being ahead of the others in my party and succumbed to a very painful – yet very welcome – sports massage, and by the time I’d finished I could greet the other finishers, all with varying amounts of race enjoyment etched across their faces.
Despite the race’s shortcomings, I think both Fi and I are delighted to have taken part. (Though I should probably check this with her!) It was a tough race, but surely a brilliant training opportunity, and with our finishing times qualifying us for 8th and 12th place respectively, it also made it something to be proud of as well. Perhaps next year I’ll think again before entering this particular race, but then again, what doesn’t kill or injure you surely makes you stronger?!