If you can get the day of work, or not work at all, the Military League army orienteering events are great for the runner. I usually do not too badly in them, and over the years I’ve seen myself creep up the placings. The navigation is usually not too difficult and nowadays, more often than not, I’m pretty happy with my result.
Wednesday’s event at Catterick, was not one of those days.
These are army events, and are put on for the army as training events. Most of them are open to civilians, in possession of a passport and a free day. So well suited to the freelancer, the homeworker, the worker on flexitime, and the retired. It’s a wondrous mix.
I was feeling pretty confident as I checked the blank map at the Start. There’s been a couple of occasions recently in orienteering events where I’ve accidentally strayed into Out of Bounds areas so I tend to check the map legend more closely nowadays. And this map had a clear section for Out of Bounds areas. In urban areas this is worth paying attention to. You don’t want to accidentally run through someone’s garden, or across a sensitive bit of parkland, or munitions, or whatever. And I noted, with interest, that Water was Out of Bounds. Well that might make things interesting.
The first few controls were in the barracks, then we were ejected out of the gate that had taken so much security to get into, and into the surrounding area. The navigation got a bit fiendish now, especially as the water had been marked as out of bounds. Which, to be frank, I thought was pretty pathetic. I’ve seen beefier becks at Hamsterley and that is (rarely) marked as out of bounds. Who’s going to take a long detour round to the nearest footbridge when a brief paddle will do the job much more quickly.
Still, rules is rules. And from a runner’s point of view, there was a certain switch-of-brain-now satisfaction in a long tempo run along, across, and round, then back along again, but even so, it was a long way round. I mean, look at 17 to 18, and 24 to 25, and so help me God, 22 to 23. I mean, look at it again. 22 to 23, and you’re not allowed to to paddle across! My split was almost 11 minutes, when it should’ve been almost 2. I did look hard at the pipeline crossings; they were not marked out of bounds, but I suspected (rightly) than large amounts of barbed wire might be involved, and they might not be a worthwhile route of investigation.
So you might be ahead of me here, and can guess the next bit. I got to download, asked who the planner was, and Phill Batts brightly announced that it was he. I complemented him on the fiendishness of the course, the decision to mark water out of bounds, and dryly (I thought, but let’s be frank, probably closer to waspishly) observed that a lot of runners had taken a non-legal direct line.
Phill looked puzzled, and mildly pointed out that the blue out of bounds area, on the out of bounds bit of the map, was a dark blue, with a border, and the beck, on the map, was light blue, and without a border. So the beck was very much not out of bounds.
Bugger. Given that I’d taken the non-scenic route I was happy not to be last, but annoyed at myself for making such a daft mistake. But as I always tell myself, I’m not going to get on the podium, so however the day unfolds, an orienteering event is always a great bit of training.
“That wasn’t me by the way” “Just checking. I mean, you do have form.”
Roberta had been chortling along to Ian’s report of the October Odyssey on Sunday. I didn’t know that people still chortled, or even guffawed, but Ian’s report certainly seemed to strike a chord. Roberta once crashed out of some path-side undergrowth at an orienteering event, checked the control id, found out out it wasn’t hers, and with an emphatic FFS, stomped down the path in disgust, pausing only to say Good Morning to a couple of startled dog walkers who were not quite expecting to see what they had just seen.
I’ve had the benefit of reading Ian’s report before deciding to write a few words of my own. I do a lot of orienteering, and as I like to point out, it’s great interval training. Classic Fartlek. And the worse you are, the better the training. I had, for me, a fairly decent run on Sunday. I wasn’t last, and there were a few gaps between last, and me, that I was happy to see. Not a vast number of gaps and I’d always be happy to see them vaster, but it was an ok day.
When I dibbed Control 1, which I thought was indecently tricky for the first control, I thought that I wouldn’t want to have a wobble so early on. Struggling on Control 1 is not a great start and a bad start can set the mood for the day. I still have nightmares about Sand Dunes, so many Sand Dunes. 16 minutes to cover the 100m from the Start to Control 1 in Druridge Bay in 2013 still haunts me.
It was a challenging course and I was happy to get to the end. The navigation and terrain were difficult. I was fairly happy with my route, although I did make some major wobbles here and there. With three controls to go and looking for a straightforward control in a ditch junction, I chanced upon the ditch by standing on a piece of grass that turned out to be a generous expanse of empty space. Winded and bloodied, I followed it to the control. The bleeding was quite impressive and the finish marshall did voice some concern, but brambles do that. It was the three foot drop and loss of breath and dignity that were much more unsettling.
If you ever decide to give orienteering a bash, and you really should, then, as a runner, here’s the only thing you need to know. All colour coded courses from Green and above, are the same difficulty. Both in navigation and terrain. They’re all the same. Green is shorter, then there’s blue, then there’s brown and sometimes black. They only differ in distance. But in terms of navigational difficulty, they’re all the same.
NATO are one of the orienteering clubs that use Routegadget for post-run analysis. This can be interesting to see how your run has compared to others. It’s a great learning tool and lets you look at the maps and routes for all the courses.
OK, strap yourself in. I’m turning the Nostalgia dial up to 11.
Back in the day, when I was a lad, we’d often go to visit my grandparents in Peebles. My brother and I would spend weekends playing in Hay Lodge Park, jumpers for goalposts, and exploring the woods along the River Tweed. My grandparents lived in Hay Lodge Cottage, opposite the park gates, where my aunt still lives. As I grew up in Edinburgh I’d still visit Hay Lodge Park, with my student chums, and late at night, we’d sometimes manage to get into Neidpath Tunnel and walk through casting our torches ahead like something out of Scooby Doo. The real challenge was to walk through, alone, without a torch. Larks.
The whole stretch of line here is an engineering marvel, from the tunnel to the viaduct with its amazing skew-arch construction, which was necessary as the bridge crosses the Tweed at an angle. There are stories that suggest that the Royal Train hid in the 600 yard tunnel during WW2 as the King and Queen visited war damage in Clydeside. Great story. Not even sure if I’m bothered about whether it’s true.
Fast forward 40 years and things have changed a little. Hay Lodge Park now has a parkrun, and the tunnel is open to the public. It’s normally unlit, but for one day, the tunnel is lit for the Tweed Tunnel Run.
I first heard about the run when I saw that Colin Blackburn had ran it previously. It looked a hoot. Three courses to choose from; 20km, 10km, and 4km. I signed up and put it in the diary.
The weather wasn’t looking great for the run, which was a bit of a shame. There’s a lot of autumn colour and contrasts and a ray or two of sunshine would’ve made for stunning conditions with the Tweed running high after all the rain. The Start was an intriguing affair. Like many races there was the problem of bottlenecks early on, especially with narrow wet rocky rough paths within the first kilometre. The organisers tackled this in an interesting way; every runner was set off individually, with the fast guys off first. It reminded me of these scenes you see of people taking a parachute jump; the starter would tap a competitor, say GO, then the next one would move forward, and a few seconds later (4 I think), the process was repeated. They allow half an hour to get all the 20km runners away, then it’s time for the 10km runners.
I’d seeded myself near the back of the pack and it was about 10 minutes before I finally got going. Even so, it became apparent to me pretty quickly that this was not going to be a quick race. I was full of a big tea from the previous evening, and I was beginning to suspect my field research into the relative merits of Clipper IPA vs Broughton Pale Ale had perhaps, on the whole, been a little too extensive. I settled down into a comfortable pace that seemed to be slightly slower than everyone else’s, meaning that I was steadily overtaken on the narrow paths.
On my feet I was wearing a pair of reliable and comfortable but worn Saucony Nomad trail shoes that had served me well. But the recent rain meant the paths were muddy and slippy. The route is mostly trail with occasional track and short sections of road, but even so, if it’s as wet as this next year I’ll wear a shoe with a more aggressive sole.
The route itself was wonderful. I thought I knew the area pretty well but the race took us upriver and across bridges and along paths I never knew existed. I loved the contrasts. I love woodland paths but this was all mixed in with tracks and riverside and open hillside, with twists and turns so you were never quite sure what was coming next.
Having done a few ultras I thought a 20km trail run would be pretty easy and I was surprised when we got to the 10km marker and got that ‘only half-way’ feeling. But I wasn’t pushing hard and I was happy to run easy and enjoy the views. One advantage of non-standard distance races on mixed terrain is there’s no benchmark. So I felt no pressure to go faster, as frankly, what was the point?
We were led onto open hillside and an exposed climb round Cademuir to the highest point of the course where the views of Peebles and the valleys made me stop and stare for a bit. Then there was some fun descending down slippy paths where again I felt the lack of traction in my shoes. It wasn’t downhill all the way though with a few kick-ups here and there, before the feed point and the turn into South Park Wood and the approach to the tunnel.
This bit of the race was a series of flashbacks, probably mostly imagined, as the last time I’d played in these woods was a long time ago, usually involving convoluted plot adaptations of Swiss Family Robinson. Still, every now and then I’d see a familiar path or feature and it was curious to see how much had changed, and how much hadn’t.
The routes converged and split a few times, and on the final descent to the tunnel there was a bit of congestion. There were no obvious problems as far as I could see though, and I guess if I was a bit faster, I’d be in front of the pinch points. I quite like these mixed-pace runs that you often see with LDWA events where the runners catch the walkers and there’s a lovely big melting pot of runners and walkers all out doing their own thing on their own terms.
The approach to the tunnel was quite a thing. Quite theatrical as it got closer, and then 674 yards until daylight again. I liked it. I wasn’t sure I would as I thought it might be a bit cheesy, but I think they got it just right. There were walkers and runners in the tunnel but I jogged through and enjoyed the surrealism, knowing that I’d be back for seconds later.
One of the great things about this event is that after the races are over there’s a 3.5km walk that you can sign up for that takes in a loop over the viaduct then back through the tunnel. This means the day can be a family affair as the runner has time to get back, finish, then go out on the walk again.
I set out with Roberta on the walk, retracing bits of the run route, and this time with plenty of time to enjoy the tunnel again.
I’ve already signed up for 2020. If you fancy a taster of what to expect, and to see some more, um, professional quality video of 2019, have a look at the Tweedlove video below. And I’m not just saying that because I make a brief appearance (1:34 since you ask).
It’s getting hard to be first-timer at any race in Striders nowadays. There are so many far-travelled adventurers competing in so many events that there’s often nothing new under the sun. I’d intended to do the Club La Santa Duathlon/Half-Marathon/Triathlon triple back in 2016 but I’m pretty sure even then that Neil Sleeman had already got the t-shirt.
Mon 9 Sep 2019 – Duathlon
The duathlon was first. All these events are done and dusted before breakfast before the weather gets too hot so they’re not massively long, but still long enough to wake you up and give you an appetite. I was looking forward this as my previous attempt in 2016 had given me the dubious honour of DNF’ing after the first monster 2.5 km run stage.
Despite being a remote lump of lava just next door to Africa, Club La Santa events definitely have their regulars. The route isn’t complicated but you have to be paying attention to the briefing otherwise a wrong turn may take you into the supermarket or swimming pool rather than on to the running track. I was disappointed to hear that the bike section no longer took a long climb up to Tinajo to turn there with a gleeful descent back to base, but instead went ‘four times round the lagoon’. Well that sounded fun. It wasn’t surprising though, as the previous route was on busier roads with the potential for a high-speed encounter with a speed-bump and a local out to buy their breakfast in the village of La Santa itself.
It’s a good way to start the day and even though it was a short event I was mindful of going off too fast and too early. I enjoyed the bike section more than I expected and just had to concentrate on counting the laps. It had a couple of bumps and troughs enough that it wasn’t a simple single-gear time-trial. The finish as with all of their events is a lap of the running track to finish under the timing tower.
Tue 10 Sep 2019 – Half Marathon
I did this event in Mar 2016, and quite a bit faster too. Perhaps it was cooler then but it was pretty hot today. The route is a simple three lap out-and-back to La Santa, and I was pretty comfortable for the first two. On the third lap the sun was well and truly out of bed and things were hot. I’m not a good hot weather runner but I have a sound strategy for dealing with the heat. I slow down and ease up. It’s the only way. I’ve learned from experience how small my margin of error is when it comes to pushing the envelope in hot weather.
It meant I wasn’t as fast as I would’ve liked, but, on the plus side, it also meant not having surreal conversations with palm trees and unpredictable physiological responses. Half Marathons are an interesting beast; very easy to under-estimate. Another hot weather race, not really in my comfort zone, hard going, but not in trouble either. Still in control of the race.
Wed 11 Sep 2019 – Triathlon
And finally, the fun one. I’m continually fascinated by the fact that I can run ultras, and cycle rather a long way. But try and do a length or two of freestyle and I’m gasping at the pool-side in weary bewilderment. A project.
Although my swimming has improved a little it wasn’t enough for me to have the confidence to venture out of the slow lane. And it was busy. Lots of sign-ups for this event and I got chatting at the start to an Ironman vet. I knew this from the tattoo on her leg, and I suspected she might be reassuringly geeky as it was a tattoo of the periodic table entry rather than the more familiar splodge.
She went into one of the faster swim lanes but I bumped into her at transition as she’d had a poor swim. My improvised hybridised breast-stroke-freestyle had worked out quite well and I was feeling fine. I’m also pretty clueless about triathlon dress-code so I just slipped on my shoes and Striders top and off I went, while some people had brought towels and stuff. I’d forgotten a towel so I was relying on the wind-chill drying me off on the bike section. There was no transition policing as such so I just had to imagine Ian Mackenzie shouting about touching the helmet before the bike. My stuff was at the front of the bike (“Everything happens at the front of the bike”) and my practice with the Tri Club Duathlons had helped a lot. There was only one timing mat per transition, but, geek that I am, I was inventing my own. I’d set my Garmin for Triathlon and so I had to be a little creative about where I decided my transitions had begun and ended.
Ironlady caught me after a lap or two, where I sat on her wheel for a bit, which I rationalised was ok because others were sitting on mine. Someone had asked about draughting, and, the response had been that it’s four laps around the lagoon; it’d be impossible to police, so they weren’t going to get excited about it. Which I think meant that it was ok. The bike circuit was windy and in a way that was good as it made it more interesting. There was a modest climb into the wind, then a section back past the centre where it was possible to get some good tempo going.
I’d been carefully counting the laps as ironlady gradually edged away from me. I’m not sure if it was guilt that made me decide to subconsciously drop back, or whether she was just, you know, faster than me. But either way, as I was about to turn into transition, she kept on going for another lap.
I was pretty, pretty sure I was right, and that I’d done four laps, but I wobbled, dangerously close to choosing a line that was neither transition nor another lap. I decided that I was right, and veered away from the line of parked cars that were in the middle position, and headed for transition.
At the finish I was still unsure how many laps I’d done, and she was pretty sure she was right, but, everyone else was pretty sure she wasn’t, and when I checked my garmin later it confirmed I had been able to count to four. But it just goes to show how easy it is lose count. I mean, four isn’t a very big number.
These events are small but unpredictable. You might be rubbing shoulders with serious athletes who are on some serious training as well as first-timers. A bit like turning up for a fell race and standing on the start line next to a national champion. Great fun, exciting, competitive, and sunny.
I’m a big fan of parkrun. Not that you’d know it given how infrequently I do them nowadays. Especially in the North East where we’re spoilt for choice. Probably something about Saturday mornings and 9AM, and running something short and fast and early. But whenever I’m away on holiday or for a short break, it’s the first thing I look for. There’s something great about parkrun tourism; turning up in a park, looking for the flags, and having a run with a bunch of others in a new place.
We were up in Peebles for the Tour of the Borders, a nicely sized closed-road sportive with great routes that’s become a favourite of mine. Although I grew up in Edinburgh I was born in Peebles and spent tons of weekends exploring Hay Lodge park as my grandparents lived in the cottage over the road. It’s a great park and it was inevitable that one day it’d have a parkrun. The parkrun wasn’t there in 2018 when I was up for the Tour of the Borders, but when I checked the parkrun website for nearby parkruns this time I was thrilled to see that it was going strong and on its 40th week while we were there.
In Scotland it’s a 0930AM start, and the park was only a short walk from the hotel. It was a misty morning but the rain was holding off and the start area was pleasantly atmospheric. Like many parkruns it suffered from lack of space, so the route had to do 3 laps of the park to get the distance in. It was also a bit hilly, both up and a pleasantly iffy descent on wet, autumnal paths that suited my sense of fun though perhaps not for everyone.
The quirkiness of parkruns always appeals to me. From the 2500 parkrunners in the Durban parkrun, to the 80 we had here today. Different crowds, different weather, different routes. It’s all good. I’ve never met a parkrun I didn’t like.
Despite the small field I was intrigued to see some seeding suggestions at the start. Sub 28 sounded fine with me and I slotted in to the huddle waiting to go. And away we went. The usual unavoidably tortuous route to string people out. Along a bit. Round a bit. Back a bit. Then three laps. Quite interesting ones. I liked especially running alongside the wall at the top of the path, then the fast descent to return close to the river.
My time, as I expected, was continuing its inexorably journey towards the thirties, but I wasn’t worried. I find it very hard to race parkruns, so to enjoy them I need to treat them as a threshold run or a exploratory jog. It shapes the day and the weekend to come.
I hadn’t planned on running Comrades again. Twice is a nice number. You can run Comrades to the end of your days, but you can only get the back-to-back medal once. As a novice, by successfully finishing your first two Comrades. I got that last year, but at a cost. It had been a bad race. I had suffered badly and had a nagging doubt that I’d got things wrong. I’d hoped and believed that I was capable of sub-11 and a bronze medal, and it turned out I wasn’t. It itched.
So when late last year, I mentioned to Roberta that, given the chance, I’d do Comrades again in a blink, I detected a flicker of an eye-roll. Comrades is a very hard race for the supporter. A 55 mile point to point, with no view of the race except the crowded finish. It’s harder on the supporter than the runner. And only a few months earlier I’d vowed never again. Never. Again. Too Hard. Then BA announced a new direct service to Durban and things gathered momentum and I thought, third time lucky. One more try at bronze.
It meant I was a bit late to training, but I was structured and focussed. I hit my racing weight, and on the 9th of June, I was in my pen early, munching on a potato, and chatting to a novice South African lady who was telling me she’d be disappointed with anything over 10 hours. Nice problem to have. Bronze is sub-11, and although I suspected I might not be fast enough, I thought I’d get pretty close. My pacing and race plan was for sub-11.
For anyone planning Comrades there is a lot of good writing on the race. I’ve followed the official coach Lindsey Parry’s training guides but I’m also a big fan of the blogs of Norrie Williamson and Bruce Fordyce. On the whole I run a disciplined race and to a plan. I suffered hugely last year and had been puzzled. In an excellent blog post from March this year, Bruce Fordyce writes about his 1985 Comrades:
It wasn’t easy and flowing. I was toiling. I remember the sickening realisation: “You are not in control of this race.”
Bruce Fordyce on his 1985 Comrades
That summed up my 2018 Comrades. Many of us have mantras and mind games that keep us going when the going gets tough. And this has become mine. Whenever I feel something is wrong I say this to myself as a warning. Something’s wrong, and a rethink is needed. In a long race, even a slightly faster than planned initial pace can cause disaster further down the line.
Comrades is not flat. And the up-run is very not flat. Average paces are meaningless and I was following the pacing suggested by Norrie Williamson. Practical suggestions on where to be and landmarks along the course. I was on target pretty much until the half-way point, almost to the second
At the Ethembeni School I looked forward to some high-fiving with the kids. I confess to indulging in mild mischief here. There’s loads of ebullient confident kids, but there’s all the shy ones too, and the naked delight on their face when you single them out and go up to them and thank them for watching is fab. One lad was so excited he grasped my fingers and wouldn’t let go. Still, my ‘Ethembeni split’ was only 40 seconds so I wasn’t there as long as it felt, but moments like that are intensely emotional and help put the race in perspective.
The school is 36.5km to go on the up-run, and my pace had slipped a fraction. I refocussed and concentrated and tried to go faster. However, at Cato Ridge, with 30km to go, it had slipped some more. I wasn’t going to get sub-11. I wasn’t going to get bronze. I had a pang of disappointment but I knew I couldn’t go faster and maintain it to the finish. In the endgame you can see many that overstretch themselves only to find themselves overstretched in the grass at the side of the road. In an ultra your race pace is the pace you can maintain for the duration of the ultra. So there was no dramatic change in my pace, I just carried on running at the pace I know I could maintain. I was surprisingly upbeat. I was still in control of the race.
With about 20km to go and on a rare descent my legs were telling me an indignant and incessant tale of woe, but my running economy felt not too bad and my breathing was ok. My legs hurt, but I was ok with that. It was just a case of concentrating on a spot in front and keeping the rhythm moving. Then I became aware of a presence behind me. A bloody bus.
After my initial fascination with the Comrades buses in 2017 I have revised my view somewhat. They can be great. but then again, they can be a pain. Sometimes their pacing is good, and sometimes it’s not. And with the organisers squeezing more entries in each year, the roads are fuller, but not wider. I felt, rather than saw, the bus come up behind me and begin to envelop me. I was irritated but resigned to my fate. Resistance was futile. Soon my biological and technological distinctiveness was added to their own. I was assimilated into the collective. I became part of the bus.
But this wasn’t an official bus. It was smaller, leaner, tighter, and I wasn’t sure who was driving. Must be that tall lanky bloke. Except he disappeared after a few kms and the bus kept going. Then that bloke going for his back-to-back. Very impressive. But then, where did he go? I liked this bus. It had raised my pace a fraction, and I had struggled initially to hang on, but I was ok now. The passengers were quite experienced too, watching out for each other; the cats-eyes and pot-holes and such that can be your undoing in a compact running group. I was also rethinking some of my pacing strategy. On a long steep hill, I usually walk the lot, as I can’t see the point of doing 20 paces running every now again and burning energy. But this was exactly what this driver was doing, and, and, I was quite liking it. In fact, when we hit the last of the Big Five, Polly Shortts, we did a walk-jog strategy that was, well, pretty hard, but I hung on.
By this time I had identified the driver. His name was Dean, and apparently, according to what was written on his Adventist running vest, Jesus was coming soon. Ok dokay. Dean was certainly working a few miracles and I decided to try and stay on his bus to the Finish. In these last few kilometres Dean encouraged and cajoled us with a faultless pacing strategy and I found my atheism was more than a little challenged.
As we ran into the stadium we instinctively spread out in a line around our driver and then we were swallowed up in the crowded finish. I looked around for Dean; I wanted to thank him. I wanted to shake his hand. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but this had been a big deal. I normally, and contentedly, run alone. But that bus for the last 20km had been a godsend. I couldn’t see Dean in the crush so I looked at the clock to check my time. 11 hours 40 minutes. 20 minutes spare. Gulp. That had been too close for comfort. Nearly half an hour slower than 2017.
But I was happy. I can’t think what I would’ve done differently. I’d done the training, lost the weight, drunk less beer, rested some more, had a revised plan, had arrived fresh, confident and positive and had gone out to get bronze. And I hadn’t got it. I’d hit my pay grade and wasn’t going to get any further. Time to move on.
I woke to perfect conditions for this fast race. A 6km jog brought me to the school and a packed but well organised event. I think it’s hit its capacity now. I checked my bib to see what my starting pen was. Dalmation. A dalmation’s quite fast I think. I hope I didn’t put anything too ambitious down for estimated finish time when I entered all those months ago.
I’d expected to be shivering on the start line but the sun was out and there was no wind and all was good. I heard some woofing and off we went. Previously I’ve found it a bit of a crush initially but there was a bit of space and I settled down resisting the temptation to go off too fast. I’d decided not to look at my Garmin until the first kilometre marker.
In a measured race like this I usually go on average pace. My PB for a 10K was 47 minutes from 2012 on the same course. Realistically I’d be happy with a sub-50. A confidence boost that my training was settling down and a useful benchmark.
At the first km I checked my watch. Average pace and actual pace. They were awfully high. I realised I was wearing my old watch and it was calibrated in old money. And I didn’t even have it set to show elapsed time. This was stupendously frustrating and I spent the first half of the race trying to convert 5 min/km in my head to min/mile pace. Not with any success
I felt like I was running ok and didn’t think I had much spare. At the half way point I edged up the pace with the view of running a good negative split. It’s a great spectator course and I’d already spotted Roberta as I’d flown past Elvis. What. A. Voice. And as we got to around 6km I saw her again as I passed under the pier.
I like a good bit of music on a road event and Southport must put the classiest act on that I’ve ever seen in an event. The Rock Choir. The race is worth it for this brief blast alone.
I pushed on and kept winding the pace up. It was a fast day and with 3 km to go I felt I was running it about as hard as I could. My concentration was not what it might be though as I had …
Till I see Marianne walk away I see my Marianne walkin’ away
… going round and round inside my head. Who sang that?! It took another kilometre before I finally clicked the connection. Boston. More than a Feeling. Sung like I’d never heard it before. Brilliant.
I ran a tight controlled hard race even if it was effectively blind and I was none too pleased to cross the line in 50:14. These 14 seconds stung. It would be easy to think that if I could have seen my pace I might have been able to nip under 50 minutes but I’m not so sure. Great conditions, hard race, good controlled negative split. I realised that I wasn’t really that bothered about the 14 seconds as I’d ran a controlled race. I jogged passed the queues for the buses to the park and ride. Why get the bus when a 6km jog back to base can be all part of the training.
I ran the first Mad Dog 10K 9 years ago and watched it grow to be one of the best races in the country. You have to be pretty quick to get in nowadays. I don’t know if a ballot system is an inevitable consequence of its success. What I really like about it though is the feeling of being part of a local grass-roots race organised by volunteers where so much of the income is donated to small local charities.
Orienteering isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and I hadn’t expected much of a response when I lobbed one of my periodical e-mails onto the list promoting a local event. It just made it all the nicer when first Nigel, Jan and then Shaun and Ros turned up at Cong Burn on a sparkly sunny cold winter’s Wednesday in January. This was an army event so were only three courses on offer and Jan and Nigel were going for the hardest one (Blue) while Shaun was approaching with more caution and opting for the middle course (Light Green). Shaun’s logic being that he didn’t want to end up doing so badly on Blue that he never wanted to do another event again.
I’ve said many times that Orienteering events are surprisingly daunting when you first turn up because they seem a bit complicated and everyone else seems to know what they’re doing. In an army event like today there are also a lot of soldiers with racing vests that often include words like ‘rifles’ and ‘lancers’ somewhere. Which doesn’t help. Even our neighbouring orienteering club Newcastle and Tyneside Orienteers are more often known by their acronym NATO.
Jan was a bit nervous so I suggested just treating it like an interval training session. A bit of fartlek. Which is basically what orienteering is. Speed work where the speed, effort, intensity and duration depends largely on how good you are. The worse you are, the better and longer the workout.
Staggered starts can sometimes make these sociable events surprisingly unsocial. By the time I’d got myself registered, organised and to the start the others had already gone. Shaun had been miffed to discover that you don’t get a look at the map with the course on it until the watch has started. I always advocate sprinting around the first corner, hopefully in the correct direction, in a purposeful manner, then as soon as out of sight of the start, stop and have a proper look. Although nowadays I’m a bit more relaxed and sometimes my starts involve a lot of Not Moving until I’ve had a good at where I’m going and got something approaching a plan.
Conditions were great for orienteering and the ground was crispy and lovely to run on. I’m not ashamed to say I was well chuffed to discover I’d caught Nigel and one of my NN clubmates Bob Cooper around control 6. Mindful of a similar experience with High Cup Nick 10 years ago I didn’t allow myself to get overconfident. Nigel had fluffed up control 3 and lost a lot of time. Orienteering is like that. One bad control and you can haemorrhage time away. When it happens early in a race you have to give yourself a bit of a talking to as it’s easy to lose enthusiasm for the rest of the course.
Nigel, Bob and I were in each other’s radar through to control 8 where things suddenly got interesting:
What would you do? It’s not a long leg, only a couple of hundred metres direct. I’d already forgotten my advice to myself about over-confidence and decided by far the best and quickest way was to drop down to the beck, leap it like a gazelle and a quick lunge north would take me to control 9. I noticed Nigel had decided to stick to the path and take the long way round.
I didn’t see Nigel for the remainder of the course. He remained ahead of me while he gradually got more into the groove and his split times steadily improved. What I did see from my vantage point of knee deep in a disgustingly brown (I hope it was peat) marsh was a slow scrub where Jack Frost had decided not to tread leaving it perfect for energy sapping trudging. Good practice for Allendale I guess.
Although the time lost wasn’t a lot these mistakes tend to dent your confidence and you either compound things by running about in a panic or slow yourself right down and collect your thoughts. Since my legs were wet, cold, and a disturbing shade of brown, and the only things flapping were my shoelaces I decided to notch things back a bit and had a fairly uneventful few controls where I got warmed up again and into the adventure.
Control 13 to 14 brought the next interesting challenge. What would you do?
The temptation is to contour directly along the steep south-east bank or to climb up and run along the road. In my experience with this sort of leg if there’s easy running further away it’s best to take the long-way round. I crossed the bridge and had an easy run along to the bottom of the bank at 14, back across the beck and up to the fence. The fence rather obligingly had a stile and a proper path on the other side so I hopped over and ran alongside the inside where it was easier while looking for the control. It was a good clean leg and I was pleased with myself.
I didn’t notice at the time but the red vertical lines on the map show that this area is clearly out of bounds and I, along with half the army, had taken the inviting path on the OOB side of the fence. In the grand scheme of things it made little difference to my time but I was annoyed at myself for not noticing and had this been a big event and I’d been spotted it would’ve been an automatic DQ. But few people noticed and it’s not as if I’m going to write about it on the internet or anything.
The remainder of the course was reasonably straightforward but the planner had made good use of terrain forcing competitors over a wide variety of challenging terrain and vegetation. I finished and back at download I found Nigel having a cuppa where it soon became apparant Jan and Shaun were still out on the courses.
We walked back out onto the fell and into the sunshine where we could get a commanding view of runners finishing. Like battlefield commanders we surveyed the surroundings and speculated where Jan and Shaun might be. Shaun was first to finish getting doggedly round all the controls. He had been frustrated by his Garmin’s auto-pause feature which interpreted every pause as an opportunity to stop recording so he was a bit unsure how long he’d been out.
Jan kept us guessing but before we got to the ‘should we getting worried’ stage she showed up at the download area. We sent her packing to the Finish which she’d decided to skip, then come back to download. It was largely academic though. Jan had a duff dibber that hadn’t flashed at any of the controls she’d visited. And the controls she had visited had been in an order of her choosing. Of all the tips I thought of offering before the start, visit the controls in order hadn’t been in there. Perhaps I should have though. I had a similar conversation out on the course with Sue and Kerry at the Durham City Night championships in 2015. If your experience of orienteering has all been score events, and no one has told you otherwise, you could be forgiven for thinking that order is optional.
I’m used to being the only Strider at these events so it was lovely afterwards to head down with the Strider platoon to the Tea Barn and investigate the coffee and cakes and indulge in a bit of data analysis. This was an event where there were often varied and quite different route choices between controls. Not necessarily better or worse than each other. But always with consequences.
Three days before Comrades I nipped into the Expo to collect my number. They make you feel special as an international runner with a special fasttrack queue that takes out much of the stress, and quite possibly, some of the fun. This left me plenty time to search for the Ethembeni School amongst the maze of stalls sprawling through the exhibition centre. I approached hesitantly, with my 4 carrier bags stuffed with pre-loved, hated-at-first-sight, and oh-not-another-tech-tee from years of racing around Durham and beyond. I’d been putting them to one side for a long time now, not really thinking through how I’d squash them into my luggage for the long trip to Durban. But squashed in they had been, and now I was a bit nervous. Perhaps the school didn’t have any crushing desire for a Durham City 10K t-shirt, or a Mad Dog 10K, or Blackpool Marathon, and would be shortly making that clear to me. But no. Apparently according to the nice lady I spoke to, they were all ‘awesome’. I was relieved as I had no plan ‘B’ if they were not wanted. After Comrades we were going onto Botswana where we had a strict luggage limit and I had visions of having to furtively find a place to lose several years of surplus running vests.
Two days before Comrades found us on the bus tour again. The Down Run this year. On a hot bus with a broken PA but this didn’t dampen the spirits of our hosts. Both Comrades runners, full of experience and enthusiasm. Once again we stopped at Ethembeni School for an impromptu concert.
The school is a wonderful place. A facility for kids with disabilities, including albinism, which can still result in them being stigmatised. The school has built up a rapport with Comrades over the years and particularly international runners. As the school principal candidly pointed out, the school enjoys donations and publicity the envy of its neighbours, simply because it’s on the Comrades race route.
The day before Comrades and it had to be the Durban parkrun. A carnival of controlled chaos with the bus drivers rehearsing their moves and runners doing their final kit checks. Despite having 2273 runners the organisers do an amazing job of running a tight ship. Should you wish to run it hard, the opportunity was there to do so. But for most people it was a jog along the seafront enjoying the spectacle and singing of the following day’s buses.
The night before Comrades we stayed at the Golden Horse casino in Pietermaritzbug. Last year it had been at the end of the race and had been surprisingly peaceful. This year, it was a much busier affair and not a lot of fun. A packed and cramped coach took us from Durban to the hotel where eventually we got checked in, were handed a free bottle of Energade, then queued in the restaurant for dinner. Our booking hadn’t been cheap and we were not too impressed with things so far. The night was short, and noisy. They seemed to be re-living the car-chase scenes from Grease in the carpark outside our room. Still, as we were up at 2AM there were not too many hours in which to be kept awake.
After breakfast I sat on the coach waiting for the avoidably late departure of the coach to the start. I’d have been better walking, and sat looking out of the coach window watching many people easily overtake the coach as they strolled to the Start. Eventually we were tufted out with not as much time to spare as I would have liked, and I went looking for the baggage bus. That was pretty amazing. I managed to extract myself from the crush without breaking anything, had a brief and hopefully forgettable detour via a portable toilet, then tried to find my starting pen. Time was counting down and there was a hellish crush at the entrance. The poor marshall tasked with policing the gate suddenly found herself forced back as the force of runners made a final push into the pen. It was pretty nasty. For many seconds I had no control over my movements; the marshall retreated to the side for her own safety and I was propelled forward into the pen by the mass of people behind me. I staggered into the pen, ducked to the side and got myself somewhere safe-ish. This was unpleasant stuff. My sunglasses had been smashed in the crush which had a surprisingly bad psychological effect on me. I’d had a bad night, and with just half an hour to the beginning of this iconic race I stood crushed in abject misery and grumpiness. All in all, I thought, this is a bit shit.
The ropes between the pens were dropped, and there was a lurch as the pens began to merge. Then there were a few moments of calm. Then over the PA it was announced that the national anthem would be played. I think they do actually play it over the PA – not that it matters. This was one of the many stranger-in-a-strange-land goose-bump moments that you experience in Comrades as an international runner. Proper singing. None of your Oggy Oggy Oggy shite here.
After the power of the national anthem came the mellowness of the Shosholoza, then a palpable expectant pause before the first notes of Chariots of Fire blasted out over the PA. I’m not a huge fan of this song, preferring Mr Bean’s 2012 Olympic variations over the cheesy original, but hey, when it’s 0530AM and dark and cold in Pietermaritzburg and you’re surrounded by thousands of fellow Comrades runners, suddenly it doesn’t seem cheesy at all. In a space of a few minutes my mood had changed. My tetchiness had been replaced by mellowness, and I wondered with interest how the long day ahead would play out. The cock crowed but I noticed some of the old-hands didn’t start their watches until the starting gun sounded a few seconds later.
Nothing much happened for a bit (although with the race being gun-to-mat – the clock had started ticking) but before long we all started shuffling forward. After the chaotic crush of getting into the pen, things were now quite calm and civilised. Perhaps it was all that singing. It was still dark and cold and I was wearing my long-sleeved Striders top. The one I’d never liked that flared out like a maternity dress but at my waist. After a few miles when things were feeling a bit warmer but still dark I lobbed it at one of the collection points at the roadside only for it to whack into the face of a volunteer who’d turned in response to my shout. I’m never going to stop feeling bad about that and it’s probably best not to think about where my old Strider top is now …
Slowly the light came up, and the sun rose over KwaZulu-Natal. It wasn’t forecast to be a hot day and running conditions were pretty nice. I wasn’t sure how race-day would play out but for the moment I was on my race plan and feeling fine.
This year my main objective was to get the back-to-back medal, a medal only available to novices who successfully complete their first two Comrades in successive years. An up run followed by a down run, or vice versa. I was pretty confident of achieving this goal, but my secondary goal was to get a sub-11 hour Comrades. I thought it was do-able. I’d done a lot of core Strength-and-Conditioning training and was generally fitter and lighter than 2017. I wasn’t complacent though. I knew it’d still be hard. I’d been reading Matt Fitzgerald’s “How bad do you want it” (worth getting for his account of the 1989 Fignon/LeMond Tour de France finale alone) and he warns that one of the main mistakes athletes make as their form improves is to assume that a race will be less tough. So I was ready for that one. As the day wound on I kept clear of the buses as their pacing seemed bonkers. I’d already passed, and been passed by, two different 12 hour buses and didn’t care for their pacing strategy. Too fast, too early.
Your number says a lot about you in Comrades and mine had two red vertical bands indicating that I was going for the back-to-back. It was a strange club and occasionally I’d make eye-contact with other back-to-back runners and exchange a brief acknowledgement. An unspoken communication that we were all there for the same reason.
The sun crossed the sky and on the long steep descents I was grateful for my S&C training as it allowed me to continue running with form where many others were now walking. On the long descent of Fields Hill within the last 30 km I edged past an 11:30 bus that was going for a walk-jog strategy, and kept my rhythm going. I knew things weren’t right though. I was feeling too fatigued too early. I knew that Comrades comprises a long, tough, steady end-game where your muscles are fatigued, but if all is well, your form, rhythm and breathing is retained. And I could sense that I was on the wrong side of the envelope.
An 11 hour Comrades is an average pace of 7:19 a km. As much as an average means anything in this race. You’re lucky if more than a few kilometres of the race are level, which is one of the things that makes it such a hard event. I tried to run as steadily and cautiously as possible but I could sense that I didn’t have the stamina I expected and that it was going to be a pretty rough old day. With 8km to go my Garmin showed that I was edging tantalisingly close to the psychologically magic pace of 7:19 and I tried to lift the pace a fraction. But just as it was looking like it was going to happen, we hit a long, draining climb into the suburbs of Durban, and it was game over.
I crashed and burned on this hill and at the drinks table at the top I knew the Bronze was not going to happen. This wasn’t a minor setback that I could recover from. My form had gone. My breathing was ragged. My rhythm was terrible. I wasn’t going to come back from this. The remainder of the race was simple damage limitation. Walking and jogging inelegantly into the Moses Mabhida Stadium and looking for the finish. With just 8km to go of this 90km race I could almost touch my target pace but by the final reckoning I wasn’t even close. The gantry clock showed 11:15 and a few seconds.
I crossed the line with mixed emotions. Part elation, part disappointment. Medals appeared and it felt good to be wearing two medals, the Finisher and the Back-To-Back. It’d have felt even better if one of these had been the bronze but that’s something I’ll have to get used to.
Sitting in the international section of the stand I peered over to the finish line as the 12 hour countdown grew near. I was struggling with two intense emotional reactions, one of which was completely unexpected. I hadn’t got the bronze, and I thought I’d been capable of it. I clearly wanted it more badly than I realised.
I puzzled over this. Perhaps it was because this is my first race for a very long time that hasn’t gone to plan. I’m much better at running even or negative splits, very disciplined, and it’s been a long time since I’ve ran a bad race. And this had been a bad race.
Suddenly a commotion from the crowd snapped me out of my despondency and with the seconds counting down a runner appeared on the finish straight being physically supported by two other runners. The crowd were on their feet and cheering them on, but there’s always one grumpy pedant who doesn’t join in and share the spirit of the moment. I leaned towards Roberta and whispered, “That’s against the rules you know. You must be unsupported”. Perhaps they heard, as I saw an official approach the runner, who dropped to his knees and crawled the last few metres, unsupported, over the line.
I settled back into my despondency and tried to unpick my race. What had gone wrong? Too much training? Too little? Too much beer? Too little? Taper too long? Short? It was difficult to shake of the feeling of unfairness and injustice. But it wouldn’t be racing if there was no risk, if everything was predictable. It would be pointless. And there’s a certain morbid fascination of going over a big race that has gone unexpectedly wrong and mulling over the possible reasons.
I thought of those few seconds that had taken me over 11:15 and could see they would have easily been eaten up by all that high-fiving of the kids as I weaved by the Ethembeni School. But I can live with that. I told myself to stop being an arse. The name Ethembeni means “Place of Hope” and their school mottoPhila Ufunde means “Live and Learn”. Wise words. They’ll do for me.