Racing the Maverick Original Somerset Trail Race coincided with a short break with the family to see my parents, sisters, and other members of the family in Minehead. Normally my runs there consist of at least one climb up North Hill and the surrounding area, or a trip up to Dunster Castle and a beach run. This time around I looked in advance to see if there were any races on locally and I stumbled upon this half marathon trail run, taking place on a Saturday morning in the Quantock Hills for the first time in Kilve.
I’m not a trail racer normally but this race appealed. A relatively low-key event that would test the legs and allow me to take in some of the stunning countryside I usually drive past when on the A39. After opting not to race in the Lincoln 5k on the Tuesday (sinuses still an issue and it was very windy) I went into the race relatively fresh, albeit having replaced the race with a solid 11.5 steady state run among other run and elliptical trainer sessions.
A mission of military precision meant my family and I were out of the house just a handful of minutes later than planned, light traffic meant we arrived at the Kilve Educational Center 90 minutes ahead of the race start. I went to register and to have a quick summary of the surroundings. Hilly was the word that came to mind. It was also rather dreary, heavy cloud and light rain spoiling the idyll of the countryside around us.
The pre-race routine was much as any other – I got changed, went for a mile or so easy paced warm up on the opening section of the course (on road, thankfully), and generally fretted for a while waiting for the race to begin. Thankfully the rain stopped shortly before the start of the race, the sun tried to make an appearance during the race but it was a largely cloudy affair, and temperatures were pleasant at around 16C. I’d opted to race in my regular Nike Pegasus trainers – I took a calculated gamble based on terrain I’d run on regularly at North Hill that the Quantocks would be a similar affair (An email to the organisers beforehand appeared to confirm this) and therefore fine for regular trainers, which I prefer over my rather average multi terrainers.
I’d planned to race with a GPX track of the route on my Garmin. At the last minute I changed my mind when, at the pre-race briefing, we were assured the course was well signposted. I took a chance and went without the course, mostly because the watch becomes very annoying when it is constantly telling me I’m about a metre Off Course, which it told me for most of the warm up, when I was very much On the course.
The race began with as little fanfare as I just gave it there. 3-2-1 go, said the chap who had just given the briefing. A small pack of us hurtled off at a silly pace – I took time to wave to my family, then went to the front of the race to try and control it (slow it down). As we took a couple of tight corners and onto a narrow road, beginning to head uphill, I looked at the Garmin – we were averaging 5:32 for the mile. This was insanity and I was relieved when the breathing around me got heavier and the pace slowed somewhat.
The first mile (which would be the last mile of the race too) was a harsh introduction to the race. The hill was gradual at first – around 3-4%, but in the last third of the mile it ramped up significantly to around 20%. I shortened the stride and attempted to keep the heart rate under control. I found myself moving away quite quickly from the three others in the lead group. By the time I left the road and onto the first footpath and gate to tackle, I found myself already with a 20 second or so gap – a 7:34 opening mile calculated with the Strava GAP as a too quick 5:29.
As I reached the top of the opening climb I was already thinking that victory was nothing but a formality. That thought was soon wiped firmly from the mind on the first descent of the race. Mostly on-road and again with a section of 20% + descent, I was feeling comfortable when, without warning, both quads cramped in an alarming manner. It was the same sensation I had at the Melton Parkrun (again on a downhill section) and more recently coming down Minnett’s Hill on a training run. I was fairly devastated, fearing another Bronte Sportive style early calamity where my chain snapped in the opening 5 miles or the same results as a post Christmas run where I was reduced to walking the final 2 miles home (after just 15 minutes of running).
I stopped at the bottom of the descent and performed a quick calf stretch, allowing the lead group to catch me. I went with them, stopping again a minute or so later at a drinks station, when I gulped a cup of isotonic drink. I carried on running, a little relieved that the pain wasn’t quite as severe on a flatter section, and knowing that if the pain got too much I could take one of several shorter race routes on offer. The lead three asked if I was okay and I explained my predicament. Too quick too soon came one opinion, which was quite possibly correct. I hoped I hadn’t ruined my chances of winning with a silly rookie error.
After a mile of fairly easy trail running through woodland, we began to climb again. I was pleased to fell that, if anything, the cramp residue pain in my quads lessened on the uphill section. I stuck in second place on a technical section for a while, but when I felt the pace began to slow I didn’t hesitate to take the lead and drift away from the pack. We left the woodland and onto the more exposed hills. It was steep but not so steep here that I ever felt the need to walk.
It was over a mile to the top and once there it was a sharp right off the dirt track and onto a more grassy, narrow, and, at times, rocky path. I had around 15 seconds on the second placed runner but, very nervous of my quads cramping again and generally not being a great descender, the second placed runner slowly began to catch me on the mile long descent. He did actually briefly catch me, I used the narrowness of the path to prevent him from passing, slightly sneaky tactics but legitimate I felt. Our feet got quite wet as we crossed some small streams – it was here I wished for the first time for some multi terrain shoes.
Having survived that descent intact, it was straight into the third climb of the race. This was a mile long and very steep in places – perhaps touching over 30%. I soon began to pull away from the second placed runner but was consigned to walking two brief sections of the hill, which actually proved to be no slower than trying to run. If I was finding it tough the second placed runner was suffering more than I. By the time I reached the top there was no sign of him. The quads were now nearly pain free, confidence was beginning to soar as I plunged down the other side of the hill on a near two mile long descent. The quads showed signs of wanting to cramp, but they resisted the urge thankfully.
At the bottom of the hill came the second feed station where more isotonic was taken on. It was here I began to pass runners who were tackling one of the smaller courses. This was a mixed blessing – it was a boost to pass runners, but a pain when they inadvertently held me up on narrow sections. It also became increasingly hard to determine who was in what race. I would look behind and wonder whether I’d just past them or whether they were catching me. This alone inspired me to keep the effort relatively high, although I was consciously trying to keep it under control to minimise the risk of the cramp returning.
The fourth climb was a real beast – two and a half miles long, although the hardest bit was at the beginning and just over half a mile long where, even though I stopped to walk a couple of times, I was pretty much the only one on the climb attempting to even run it slowly. At the top of this cliff face I was met by a runner who clearly hadn’t run up the hill and was asking me which way he should go as he was lost. I took a quick look and saw some orange markers and said it must be that way. He looked a bit confused but followed me, his pace reasonable. A half mile or so further on and there was another split where the long and the medium course went different ways. I took the long course and to my surprise so did the lost runner. I queried whether he was doing the long course and he said he was. I knew there was no way he’d caught me and knew he’d taken a wrong turning somewhere (Strava flybys confirms this).
He decided seemingly he was back in the race and began to chase me. My comfortable victory was now less so, and I was forced to work pretty hard on the remainder of the climb and the subsequent long descent to eke out a gap where we could no longer see each other. Thankfully the descent from 1100 ft to around 400 ft was over three miles long and for the most part not steep, so the quads weren’t overly troubled.
A quick drink from the final feed station and I was heading to the finish, now on familiar track tackled at the beginning of the race. This was a double edged sword as I knew there would be a tough final climb and, more worryingly, a very steep final descent on road. Comfortably in the lead I allowed myself the luxury of walking for a few seconds on the ascent before bracing myself for the descent.
Within meters I found my quads beginning to cramp severely. I stopped and tried walking but that hurt too. I then remembered a pieced of advice from an ultra runner who had explained why they often jog backwards down steep hills to lessen the stress on the quads. It looked daft but I gave it a go and to my relief I was able to jog on the steepest section at around eight minute miles backwards!
As soon as the descent steepness diminished it was back to forwards running and ignoring as best I could the cramp in my legs. This became easier as I saw the 1km to go marker and then, not long after that, the final turn into the finish, where my family were there to cheer me past the finish line for my first proper race victory! In the end it was a relatively comfortable victory – 2:41 clear of the second placed finisher who took a wrong turn and 4:05 clear of the third placed runner.
After congratulations I was whisked off for a podium photo with my prize – a pair of £140 Newton trainers. Not a bad return for an hour forty five’s work! The legs by now were totally shot with cramp, but the joy of winning helped lessen the pain. I chatted a while with quite a few runners, a friendly bunch these multi-terrainers certainly are, before showering and heading off for lunch with the rest of the family. A good day had by all!