"Jerry you won't believe this but drink bottle has frozen, it tastes just like a raspberry slush puppie"
These were my exact words as I left the first checkpoint on Sunday during the Gatliff 50km marathon event. I was pre-warned about this event to not under estimate it or be fooled by the race title. This event is primarily setup for walkers by the LDWA with distances of 50km, 35km and 20km. Every year it has been held there are usually a lot of changes to the course and this year was no exception.
I haven't been running many long runs since Grimsthorpe in the summer and this was certainly going to be a good test of my base fitness, test my sense of direction (of which I have many issues) and hang out with a few running buddies I haven't seen a few months.
As soon as I got out of bed at 5.15am I knew it was going to be a very cold day but how cold exactly remained unanswered, well until I opened the front door. I crept downstairs to prepare a bagel with jam and a coffee to get some fuel on board. Around 1/2 hour later I got dressed into my kit that I prepared the night before and opened the front door. Oh my god! It was freezing. I opened the back door to the car and loaded up my change of clothes and shoes. I checked the digital thermometer in the car and it read -6C/21F. I left around 6.15am by the time I scraped the ice of the windscreen.
The journey to Edenbridge, Kent was pretty quick and once parked up I phoned Jerry and I walked to the Rugby club where the start and finish were. I met Jerry and George inside the main hall, paid my race entry and registered my details for the 50km event. I picked up the route directions and we headed quickly out the door at 7.20am.
The first 2-3 miles were relatively flat however it was very noticeable how rough conditions would be underfoot in exposed areas as we traversed the first fields. It was frozen solid like concrete and with the very uneven surfaces you would need to dance across the terrain in order not to twist an ankle. The terrain changed quite rapidly as we reached the first hills around 200ft although not a great deal of climb the cold air and cold winds were making things a little tougher than in training. We decided early on that we weren't going to run hills as this was a training run so we would power walk up them because after all we were not going to push things today.
As the route progressed we lost ourselves a couple of times due to how we interpreted the directions. Still it made things fun in my opinion especially as the landscape was so beautiful to look at both. The frosting made everything look like it was coated in sugar. Time seemed to quickly dissipate despite everything around us seemingly standing still, before long we had reached the first checkpoint. One problem however was that they had didn't have any water due to the supply being completely frozen solid. I decided it was time to eat 1/2 a 9bar that I had brought along with my raspberry powerade. I tried drinking from my water bottle but no liquid was coming out. It had completely frozen in my holster. When I finally took the cap off it was like a slush puppie that my kids drink in the summer (ok and me sometimes too). I didn't feel that thirsty however I knew that if I didn't drink much I would still dehydrate despite the low temperatures.
What I didn't know at the time until Jerry told me was that we were entering "Winnie the Pooh" country in Ashdown Forest. George said to watch out for Pooh Bridge although unfortunately no pictures of it. We constantly referred to the directions as the landscape changed to woodland which made faint paths tricky to spot. We got chatting to a walker who offered some sound advice "Follow the yellow arrows". So we decided to pick up the pace and shot down a lovely looking trail, unfortunately it was the wrong one!! We headed back about 500-600m before we come to the point where we should have gone. Where the hell was these yellow arrows!! Once we headed down into the gully it was then we saw the arrows..Weald Way..Doh!!
We started to head into the Wealds of Kent and it was great to get some single track running in with sharp twists and turns, short sharp inclines and some fast descents. This is the type of terrain I love the most when I head out to run. I let gravity take me down the descents as we headed deeper into the rabbit hole of the race. The terrain suddenly changed to concrete and roads which was a shame but again I didn't want to be spoilt to much with woodland trails as I might not of wanted to come out!! We soon hit Checkpoint 2 and I topped up my water bottle with some blackcurrant squash and ate the rest of my 9bar. We then consulted the directions and it was clear at this point we were heading to the highest point which was over 600ft. We set off at an easy pace and felt very good after all I wanted to experience things fully rather than just get to the end of this one. I don't get many opportunities to do this type of event (although I think that will change)
I felt pretty good and the miles ticked by despite losing some time earlier with regard to not following directions correctly however we knew that we were now heading north due to the bearings pointing that way. We could see that we had a 1500m stretch along a disused railway line. We met up with a couple of other runners who were unsure whether we were on the right track so to speak. I looked at the directions as we settled into a steady rhythm and could see that the next checkpoint was the lunch stop. Personally I wasn't that fussed about the food however I was looking forward to a cup of tea or two on this cold day. We stopped at the checkpoint and I ate 1/2 9bar again and some chocolate Swiss roll and two cups of tea and topped up my water bottle. It really did feel good to have a hot drink. We only stopped for about 5-10 minutes and on we went. If I sat down I would have been in there for ages...
We had to track back some way down the railway track again and as we were about to cross a stile we came across a guy who was holding his head and the back of his neck. He did look a bit worse for wear and with the very cold conditions it was best that he return to the checkpoint. We flagged down some walkers who were heading that way and asked whether they could take him there to ensure he got medical attention. It reminded me of how easy it is to take a fall and end up like that especially due to the challenging conditions. You never know when your number come in and I hope he is doing ok and that my number never comes around.
We pushed onward feeling strong chatting away and focused a great deal on the directions so as to not make a mistake. I was quite pleased with myself that I had become accustomed to the directions and feel more confident for future events. The terrain had changed so much during the run that you had to employ a whole host of skills to ensure you continued moving forward, it wasn't just a case of run and follow the arrows. We reached Checkpoint 4 and had a cup of tea and ate the last of my 9bar (do love the pumpkin flavour). I felt pretty good and put this down to getting my sound hydration and eating right. However I didn't fill my water bottle this time before heading out the checkpoint door.
As we entered the last 15km I was wondering how long we had been on our feet as to be frank I hadn't really looked at my watch since we started, it stated around 6hrs. Time had gone quick. Just as we reached the marathon point Jerry had a small celebration as he reached 2,000 miles for the year. I started to have a rough moment and felt quite thirsty. I reached for my water bottle but it was empty. I knew the last checkpoint was only 2 miles away so I pressed on with the others, I have been in this position before and its a case of managing the feeling knowing that it will pass. It wasn't a catastrophic mistake as the checkpoints were not far apart but it reminded me of the importance of maintaining 100% concentration on things such as this otherwise in future races I will pay for it.
We reached the last checkpoint (in a Sawmill) and I immediately wanted a hot drink and some lemon squash to quench the thirst. We didn't stop long as it was only 6.2km back to the finish line. As we headed out the door along the road there was great view of the North Downs. For me it's always a privilege to see this as I am so used to living in a very flat area of the country in Essex. In the last mile or so we sighted the Rugby club and I felt so good that I decided to stretch the legs out and sprinted (felt like I was) across the field to the club house. Sorry Jerry and George I couldn't resist it.
I went through the doors and collected my finishers certificate. We had held back and it wasn't a competitive time (finishing in 7hrs39 mins) but it was a great training run with similar minded individuals and a good experience to take forward for the next adventure.