Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Cotswold Way Century Race Report

The Cotswold Way just shouldn't be this hard. It's the Cotswolds for goodness' sake. The Cotswolds are tea and scones, sheep and honey-coloured villages - everyone knows that. These aren't the Alps or the Dolomites. But for some reason, which it seems nobody can quite pin down, the Cotswold Way is hard. I walked the route back in 2002 with a friend. It took 6 days and left me exhausted and with flayed feet. And if you'd asked me how that happened, I couldn't have told you - all I remembered afterwards was tea and sheep and honey-coloured villages. On paper, the route is strikingly similar to... let's say the South Downs Way. The Cotswold Way is 102 miles with 4,400 metres ascent and the South Downs Way is 100 miles with 4000 metres climbing. Yet the best runners crack off the South Downs race in 14 hours compared to 19 or 20 hours for the Cotswolds. How can two extra miles take five more hours? The answer is the ineffable and wholly unexpected badness of the Cotswold Way. Over one-third of the field would drop out of the race during the next 30 hours. People who have successfully run Leadville would be beaten by the Cotswolds. And this is what makes it so surprising that I got through this - my first ever race of over 50 miles, almost exactly one year to the day after I started running - without any serious trouble.
The finish line in front of Bath Abbey on the night before the race. On the way to my traditional curry and beer pre-race feast
My day started on the bus from Bath, chatting to John Sreeves (who would be the first off the starting line and the last over the finish line) and Daniel Hendrickson, whom I first met earlier this year when he beat me into third place at the Nomad 50. The worryingly long bus ride took us to the school in Chipping Campden, where Kurt Dusterhoff's race briefing memorably included a warning about the carparks of Gloucestershire being hotbeds of dogging activity at night. Half the checkpoints were to be in Gloucestershire carparks at night...

Suitably warned, we walked en masse up the road to the start line in the centre of the village, ready for the midday start. Immediately, things started to go wrong. My Suunto watch, which has performed flawlessly ever since I got it to replace my piece-of-shit Garmin Fenix, was refusing to lock onto satellites no matter how much I waved my wrist in the air. As I'd planned to use the watch to navigate as well as to monitor my progress, this threatened to throw me off my game. As a result, the first 4 or 5 kilometres were spent distracted and fiddling with the bloody thing, my heart rate getting way too high as I failed to attend to what I was doing and went too hard up the first big hill.

Eventually, Mr Suunto and I both calmed down, and I found myself running up grassy slopes to Broadway Tower, chatting with a runner called Craig and regularly leapfrogging a tall man with a ponytail. Craig and I blasted down the long slope to Broadway and I lost him as I jogged through the village, the milling tourists staring and smiling at the crowd of garishly dressed runners that had descended on their scone-shopping. The first few hours were great. The route ran up and down a lot of slopes, through woods and across fields. Never constant, and never boring, the path changes angle, camber and surface almost constantly. There were plenty of hands-on-knees power-hike uphills. I stuck to my plan of shovelling in lots of gels and Wagon Wheels (which are a superfood I discovered on the Oldham Way Ultra), and within 3 hours I was cruising past Hailes fruit farm, reflecting on how much things had changed - Hailes had been the end of a full day's walking when my friend and I hiked this route 12 years earlier! Up and down the slopes I ran, and somewhere around Cleeve Hill I found myself again near the man with the pony tail - who turned out to be called Jonathan - and another runner who was also called Ian.
Up the first big slope, just ahead of Jonathan
Jonathan, Ian and I ran together towards Checkpoint 3 at Birdlip, making a pretty good pace. At first, we hoped to get to the checkpoint before dark, but as the route disappeared under a leafy canopy we had to admit defeat and dig out our headtorches. At Birdlip we were served drinks and snacks by Rich Cranswick, a Piece of String survivor whom I know from Social Ultra runs. Rich had decided to honour Birdlip by dressing in a bright yellow chicken costume, and I was grateful he was here and not at a later checkpoint where I might have worried I was hallucinating...

Refreshed and with our water bottles refilled, we set off again into the night. The gaps between the aid stations were long - perhaps too long. The big intervals made breaking the race into manageable chunks difficult - and, of course, it's exactly this sort of technique that most runners use to handle the immensity of an ultra. Ian started to find the going a bit tough after checkpoint 3, and it was with relief that we eventually made it to Painswick Rugby Club. This was the 48-mile point, and the only indoor checkpoint. Ian and I both said we'd take a reasonable break to fully sort ourselves out - there was a nice unspoken agreement in the air that said we'd both leave this checkpoint together. I took my shoes off and immediately began to eat like a bear rising from hibernation. I ripped the tops off a family pack of rice puddings and inhaled the lot in seconds. I then opened my throat and dropped down a string of liquorice allsorts, Snickers, Eccles cakes, jelly babies and - just possibly, given that I later found its lone sibling under my chair - a stray Drymax sock.
Ian and Ian
In the hall around me, things were not looking happy. The woman in the next chair had just dropped out of the race and was disconsolately packing up her kit; Jonathan announced he was going to drop out too; Ian had been struggling to keep going for the past 10 miles; and me...? I felt fine. Better than that, I felt great. I was loving every moment of this. Even then, it seemed incredible that I could feel so good when so many others were struggling, and writing this three days later it seems all the more remarkable. But there you have it - I felt great and I was loving my first 100-mile experience. Those who doubted my pre-race curry and beer routine might like to take a good long look at themselves right about now.

Around 30 minutes after arriving, Ian and I left the club and headed down a dark field to a strand of trees. Almost immediately, as we debated which path to take, we met a cheerful copper-haired woman from Cornwall called Emily, and the three of us fell into step. We trotted along an undulating trail through a long wooded section and then down to scuttle across an eerily quiet dual carriageway, chatting happily away the whole time. Emily proved to be lively and great running company.

A few minutes later, heading up a bramble-lined slope from Kings Stanley, we ran into a group of male runners. One of them had a tinny speaker blasting Oasis tunes from his backpack pocket. Not really wanting the beautiful stillness of the evening broken like this, the three of us kept trying to fall back and let the music boys get ahead. Except they never did. They kept surging away, leaving us in silence, only to slow to a walk a few moments later, at which point we'd catch up again. This kept on happening. Surge-slow-catchup. Surge-slow-catchup. Repeat over and over until reaching the Frocester Hill checkpoint at 58.5 miles. Here, at last, we realised what was going on. As I filled up on more rice pudding (this time with a massive dollop of jam - thank you checkpoint man!) we could see that one of the music boys was collapsed in a chair, thoroughly exhausted from the effort. He hadn't been able to keep up a run for any length of time, which explained the surging and slowing. (We didn't see him again, and I'm sure he must have dropped. His companions later flew past us in a flustered panic next to the Tyndale Monument, having misunderstood a message about cut-off times.)

As we left the Frocester Hill checkpoint, Emily, Ian and I picked up a new companion. Wearing a Vegan Runners vest, this man's name was John. John was great company and it was lovely to have him with us. From hereon in were were a foursome.

Alright, I'm just going to say this and get it over with: whoever planned the Cotswold Way is an evil bastard. There - I've said it. There is no other explanation for why the route goes over Cam Long Down when there's a perfectly good footpath that takes a much straighter AND FLATTER route towards Dursley. But oh no, we can't go that way because whoever it was decided to send us up the steepest, nastiest slope of the route so far. Ouch, is all I can say. And also: bollocks. My right IT band had started giving me intermittent pain - something I've never experienced before - and pointless and unnecessary slopes were not my favourite things right then. Incidentally, as I'm not going to mention it again, the IT band pain proved to be a weirdly temperamental and unpredictable thing for the rest of the run. I'd get sudden and terrible sharp pains on descents, forcing me to shout bad words and start running crablike. And then it would instantly clear up as though it was never there. At one point I went 40 km without feeling it, only for it to reappear out of the blue and leave me yelling "Fuckity fuck fuck!" into the night. Weird.

Anyway, the awfulness of Cam Long Down behind us, we trotted through Dursley after 2 AM. Late-night drinkers asked what we were doing and wished us well as we headed up the high street and thence up a desperately steep hill towards the golf course. Near the top, there was a rustling sound and a big hairy badger burst out of the undergrowth and stared at us, its eyes green in the reflected torchlight. Deciding we were no threat, it turned its back and trotted away up the slope. John and I were thrilled - I'd never seen one in the wild before.

As we took the long, awkward and dispiriting route around the golf course, listening to the screeches and hoots of owls all around as we ground up and down little slopes, Ian started suffering again. Over the next few hours he went from being cheery and talkative to a silent presence pounding out the miles at the back of the group. The rest of us all understood this. He was finding this run to be really hard and was just dealing with it in his own way, deep in his pain cave. Good for him for ploughing on like that. The guy's got guts.

I, on the other hand, was still - somehow - feeling brilliant. I genuinely didn't understand why I felt so good when the rest of the group were all showing signs of struggling, but there you have it. Firmly believing that the pendulum would soon swing the other way, I resolved to make the most of feeling good and tried my best to keep the others going through the night. I spent a lot of time running in the lead, pushing the pace slightly. I could have gone substantially quicker during this stretch - had I been alone, I would have run, or at least walk-ran, many of the stretches that we walked that night. The rest of the group picked up on this, and a few times people said I should run ahead if I wanted to. But I really didn't want to. I was enjoying their company. Moreover, I truly believed it would soon be my turn to have a bad spell. I'd never run this far before so didn't know what was going to happen. By keeping the group moving, and trying to be cheerful and encouraging for the others when they were low, I was doing my part now in order that somebody could do the same for me if I needed it later. We were now, as far as I was concerned, a team. We had become Team Badger.

I think a big part of the challenge of the Cotswold Way might be the way it refuses ever to let you get into a rhythm. It roller-coasters up and down slopes almost constantly. "I see you're almost getting comfortable hiking up that hill - time for some quad-busting downhill, boy! Just getting used to that cowfield with its painful camber, are you? Try this rocky slope. Oh you like the rocky slope do you? Too bad, it's just about to turn into a long woodland track that's not quite runnable and which makes you duck under a series of dangling thorns before landing you at the edge of a cornfield..." It was even worse at night, because then the Cotswold Way - which is obsessed with visiting viewpoints - finds more ways to taunt you. "Yes, you can see the next village a mile away, can't you? But not so fast! I'm going to make you run an 8-mile looping detour around a bunch of topographs and memorial benches from which you can't see anything because it's dark. Bwah-ha-ha!"

A pre-dawn snack at the Wotton-under-Edge checkpoint, where I was thrilled to see a helper wearing the woolly hat they gave us after the JW Ultra two weeks earlier. Then up, on stiffening legs, over lots more hills on narrow and rocky tracks. Finally, after 12 long long hours, the sun started to dawn on what proved to be a beautiful and surprisingly warm Sunday. As the sun rose, so did Ian, emerging from about six hours of silent focus to make a totally unexpected and funny joke. Naturally, the rest of us teased him mercilessly about needing six hours to come up with a punchline.
Me and Dave Gooding at the end of the JW Ultra two weeks earlier - thrown in here to explain my excitement at seeing the checkpoint helper's JW Ultra woolly hat. And as it happens, Dave here is the person with whom I walked the Cotswold Way back in 2002
On we pressed along country lanes, over cowfields and through woodlands, our conversations taking curious turns. Ian and I both proved to be oddly knowledgeable about the history of high fructose corn syrup; Emily's "guess each other's surnames" game nicely filled a long section of running. Eventually, as the hills finally began to flatten out and be replaced by lumpy and awkward fields, we reached Old Sodbury. This was a funny landmark for me. In a sense, it felt like the start of the home stretch. I ran from Bath to Old Sodbury and back on the first Social Ultra run; more recently I ran from here to Bath on a recce. So naturally I started thinking "Ah, Old Sodbury, we're nearly home", but this was a big mistake. On both previous occasions I had run from here, it took under 4 hours. So I found it really hard to accept the awful truth, which was that at this stage of such a long race, with Ian (and, increasingly, Emily) suffering, and all our legs getting heavy, there was easily 6 hours or more of running still to go. Six hours? No, come on! It's Old Sodbury... It's four hours from here... right? Right?

Well, all I can say is that, with eighty miles or more in our legs, those last miles were tough. We did manage to rally quite impressively between Tormarton and Cold Ashton, but then soon slowed down again. We walked a lot of what we'd have run on fresh legs. And there were stretches here where I started to feel like the slow one, trailing behind the rest of the group as we trotted across uneven fields.

The race had been, for a long time, extremely stretched out. Throughout this whole stage there was no feeling of chasing a runner in front, and nor did we feel chased down. With the exception of Carl Zalek, who appeared out of the blue near Tormarton and then blasted away towards Bath looking strong, we were in a bubble battling towards the end by ourselves and fighting nothing but the clock and our own inertia. I was, increasingly, finding it physically tough. My legs were heavy. But - and this might be the important thing - at no stage did my mind feel bad. I never once felt defeated or entertained the slightest thought of stopping. I take a lot of comfort from that even as I think back on how worn my body felt by the slow sapping attrition of the Cotswold hills.

And so, slowly and painfully, we approached Bath. John had his head down and was getting on with grinding out the miles like a champ. But Ian and Emily were both in a bit of a state at this point. Ian kept sitting down and saying he'd have to drop out at the last checkpoint; Emily was overheated and just couldn't cool down enough. Both were getting punch-drunk and not thinking straight, to the point I had to remind them to eat. I had a full bottle of water left and sprayed half of it over Emily's head. As a married man, I felt guilty making another woman moan in pleasure like that.

And so, together, we ground slowly to the final checkpoint, 99.5 miles in. Here, we found the beaming bundle of positivity that is Tim Lambert, who gave us great encouragement and made us feel like champions. He was able to tell Emily that she was definitely in line for the third woman place if we kept moving. Right, that was it - we had the longest, hardest 2.5 miles to go and couldn't wait around for somebody to steal Emily's podium spot. John and I bundled Ian out of the checkpoint before he could even think about dropping out and we got on with Phase 2 of "The Cotswold Way planner is a right bastard". The route crawled up and over a series of ridiculously steep slopes around Weston, and the only saving grace was that most of them had bannisters - Emily quickly showed us how much easier it was pulling ourselves up the slopes hand-over-hand, and we all followed her lead.

Knowing Bath well, I was able to offer some reassurance as we got closer. "That's the absolute last climb now", "From here it's less than a kilometre", "Turn right at the Circus and it's all downhill from there." As the final climbs disappeared behind us, Ian came awake again, once again emerging from 4 hours of almost total silence to make a really good joke. Now it had happened twice, we had to tease him all the more for it.

Finally, as we came down Quiet Street, I was able to say "We're just a hundred metres from the finish - let's really run from here!" And we did. Down Milsom street then left into the Abbey courtyard. We ran in side by side through the tourist crowds, claiming a four-way joint finishing position at 26 hours and 11 minutes. Since the night, it had been clear that we were running as a team - one for all and all for one. There was no way that race could have finished in any way other than the four of us crossing that line together. It hadn't always been pretty, and there had been some low moments, but we'd worked together and pulled one another through the bad times. My wife Sarah was waiting for us outside the Abbey doors and I fell into her arms with an enormous smile on my face and teary eyes. Emily was handed her third place woman award. Photos, medals, laughs.
Team Badger at the finish. Photo: Nicola Dusterhoff

Afterthoughts

So there it was - my first 100 mile run! Honestly, even now, three days later, I can't believe how easy I had it. Okay, so "easy" is a monstrous lie, because there's nothing easy about running 100 miles and there never will be. Perhaps it would be better to say it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been, or as bad as I had feared it might be having experienced some deeply low moments in earlier races. I never once, even for a second, doubted I could finish this one. I felt mentally strong - hell, I was actively enjoying myself - the whole time. My body was seriously weakening in the last 20 miles or so, and I now see how true is that saying that a 100-mile race has its half-way point at 75 miles. But it really wasn't that bad. The problem is, I now don't know if this was a freak event or I just did things right. And if I did things right, which things? Perhaps if I had left the group and gone ahead when I was feeling like I wanted to go faster in the night, I'd have blown up and ended up in a mess? Who knows? Clearly the only way to find out will be to run more Hundreds. I signed up for the 2015 South Downs Way the very next day.

And what about the event? To get the negative out of the way, I do think it could do with one or two more checkpoints. At times, they felt very spaced out - 13 miles, 14 miles, 12 miles, 9 miles, 11 miles, 12 miles, 10 miles... a person could feasibly be looking at 4 hours or more of plodding through the dark on tough terrain from one checkpoint to the next. The long gaps were hard on the spirit. But, in fairness, when you got to those checkpoints the helpers were superb and couldn't do enough to get you feeling better and on your way. And putting that one issue aside, the event is pretty amazing. I think it should be on every serious runner's list. It's such a challenge. Seriously. Don't do what I did and think "Cotswolds? How hard can that be?" because I'll tell you: bloody hard. A third of the field dropped out of this race or were timed out. A third. From a field of extremely serious and experienced ultrarunners. That should tell you what you need to know. Yes, you think of the Cotswolds and you think of honey-coloured villages and scones and sheep. But I'll tell you, my friend: it's a wolf in that sheep's clothing. And that wolf wants to bite you. 


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