Race Report – Stilton Stumble 24K – Sunday 16th October 2016

It’s fair to say this race wasn’t on the radar a couple of weeks ago when I finished racing at Nottingham. Indeed it was only when I was compiling a list of local races for the forthcoming week for the Grantham Running Club Facebook page seven days before the 16th October that I stumbled upon the Stilton Stumble. I’d not previously heard of it, but It comes in two shapes, the 10K and the 24K. Being local (A village called Cropwell Bishop, around 15 miles from Grantham) and fairly small it looked an ideal low key race to try and flex my competitive muscles. I went to enter the 10K but it was full. The 24K had spaces, but entries closed at 23:59 on the Sunday night, and it was already around 21:00 BST.

Instinctively and without really thinking about the Achilles injury that persists nor the wisdom of taking part in a race that is the best part of a couple of miles longer than a half marathon, I signed up. Part of the lure was the unashamed prospect of perhaps bagging my first ever road race victory at what I believe would be approximately the 147th attempt. I’d looked at the past winners of the previous three editions, and with one exception – my nemesis at the Newton’s Fraction Half Marathon – Adam Holland, who ran a frankly untouchable 1:23 in 2015, I reckoned I would have had a good chance of beating the other two winners.

The biggest issue was that, since the Robin Hood Half, I hadn’t actually run, planning to take three weeks off in an attempt to rest the sore left Achilles. That had to become two and a half weeks rest as I tested the bugger with a 5k post elliptical trainer and turbo trainer brick run. That was a big success with hardly any discomfort and the fastest time for my fairly oft run 5k loop. I gave it one more test with a Thursday night club run. That was a less happy affair, the Achilles grumbled a bit more as did the left hip and groin.

By Saturday I’d wondered why on earth I’d made the hasty decision to enter, with Achilles grumpy, right calf tight, left hip aching and fighting a cold passed on by the youngest of the bug ridden daughters. Still, I’d paid my money to enter and there was no way I wasn’t going to try and race.

It was fairly dry when I arrived at 8:30, Sunday morning, at Cropwell Bishop. I went to the registration desk – being one of the first to arrive, it wasn’t busy, so I had the opportunity to scan the entry list. I looked for one name – Holland…. It wasn’t there. The helpers on the desk said that he’d turned up on the day last year and won, but there was no entry on the day this year, and he hadn’t entered. Without knowing any of the other names I felt my prospects were instantly good. I told the helpers pretty much that. “Maybe we’ll see you first back at the finish then?” one of them asked. “Maybe you will.” I replied.

Things turned for the worse when the promised rain fell. Steady at first, but progressively harder as the 10 am race start approached. I had managed a fairly miserable warm up where everything ached and nothing wanted to work. Somehow I still reckoned everything would be all right on the night. Back at race HQ and the small hall was full of runners and spectators attempting to shelter from the rain. I managed to find a small alcove outside near the four portaloos, where I could stay relatively dry. Twenty minutes before the off I changed into my race kit. With my space gone I queued inside for the men’s toilets. I had no real need to do anything once it was my turn, but I got to spend ten minutes by a warm radiator, which felt lovely.

At 9:50 I headed out into the wet and cold for perhaps the most uncomfortable pre-race briefing ever hold. Chilled to the bone at its conclusion, we were instructed to walk to the start where there was an interminable two or three minute wait for ten am to come. This start was pure old school: roads closed with 30 seconds to spare, race start banner hauled across the line, a brief countdown from 5 to 1 and we were off.

I didn’t want to take the lead right from the start but with no-one willing to do so I kind of found myself at the front by default after around ten seconds of running. As we turned the corner and headed south after less than two minutes running I’d found myself ten to fifteen meters clear in the lead without really doing anything other than setting off at what felt a very comfortable pace.

While the pace felt comfortable and the niggles put to the back of the mind, the weather was pretty appalling. The race photographer had taken shelter in his car as the rain lashed down onto roads that were beginning to flood in places. Mercifully it wasn’t that cold and I’d taken the precaution of wearing gloves to keep the fingers warm, but my kit was saturated and my shorts beginning to suffer something of a malfunction as the weight of the rainwater caused them to sit somewhat uncomfortably.

I knew the odds of victory were good when I passed the first mile in 6:11 (Worth a 6:00 on Strava GAP), yet had a 10 second or so lead over the second and placed runners. Making a determined attempt to keep the effort steady, the heart rate settled a couple of beats above marathon HR, and a few below half marathon. Ideally I would have preferred it to be a bit less but not only did we have the rain to contend with, the first half or so of the race was into a fairly stiff breeze.

Mile 2 was a 6:03, mile 3 a 6:01. The next three miles were similarly paced and I passed through 10k in 38:03. The sixth and seventh miles were the slowest in the race (6:13 and 6:22) as I climbed steadily uphill, Strava GAP has them at 5:59 and 6:02. As I approached Long Clawson the weather deteriorated, if it were an F1 race it would have been stopped. As it was I was all alone with just the lead car and sometimes a man on his bicycle to keep me company. I glanced back occasionally but saw nothing.

Long Clawson was holding the area’s annual Conker Championships. They invited me to stop and play. I politely declined. I passed through halfway in 45:46 and not long after turned direction to head North back to the finish. The wind was at my back and mercifully the rain stopped, even a bit of blue began to reveal itself from what had 20 minutes earlier been the most leaden of skies. I felt I had two choices – either ease off loads and allow others to come into sight before pushing on again or to try and maintain the pace, keeping or extending the gap to allow for any potential late race dramas like a touch of cramp or a ruptured Achilles….

Miles 8, 9 and 10 were the quickest of the race (6:00, 5:59, and 5:57) I was still feeling very comfortable and it was only a tight right calf and a bit of discomfort in the Achilles that concerned me. The next two miles were a touch slower but everything felt in control as I passed through a very flooded Colston Basset and took on some more roads I am now very familiar with on bike rides.

It was here as the roads began to climb a bit that I began to flag. I went through on my watch the half marathon distance in a smidge under 1:20. The right quad began to ache quite a bit, as if it could cramp at any moment and the legs in general just felt a little tired. A mental penalty was that I’d calculated 24K to be 14.3 miles, it transpired at around 13 miles that it was actually pretty much spot on 15 miles. Only an extra 0.7 of a mile to cover, but at the time it felt like a lot.

I should really by now have eased up and slowed to take a comfortable victory but the instinct to always give an honest effort that runners in the lead of races inevitably display kicked in with myself, with the fourteenth mile a 5:59 GAP mile and the fifteenth a real 6:02. It was now I came to the finish to a smattering of applause – many unaware that I was a 24K runner and a straggler from the 10K race which had began 10 minutes after the 24K but had mostly seen all its runners come in. I nearly came a cropper around the final right bend, the tightness of it sending the aching right calf into a cramp like spasm that saw me tread rather gently pass the finish line.

The official time of 1:31:35 was fairly pleasing given the lack of running in previous weeks. On analysing the run back home I was also really pleased with how consistent the splits were, especially when Strava uses its GAP tool – all miles were within 12 seconds of each other. I was soon congratulated by the race organisers and quickly presented with my winners’ medal and with my prize – a large slab of the locally produced Stilton. While happy to receive the spoils of victory, I couldn’t help but express a little disappointment that Stilton is, in my opinion, utterly inedible. To their credit the lovely hosts of the race offered a raffle prize, but I declined – there are plenty of family members who will enjoy a bit of blue mould at Christmas time.

Presented with my prize after winning the Stilton Stumble 24k. Picture c/o Stilton Stumble.
Presented with my prize after winning the Stilton Stumble 24k.
Picture c/o Stilton Stumble.

A quick photograph and that was pretty much that. I had to get back to do some World Endurance Championship work, so, I took advantage of finishing first by over four minutes to be one of the first out of a car park that was rapidly looking a lot like a quagmire. I put my race sunglasses on – unworn during the race, put on some loud music and drove home.

It was an odd sensation winning my first road race. It was pleasing but hardly overwhelming, probably because I was never really pushed and, for the most part, it felt very much like a very wet and somewhat lonely hard training run. Still I hope that it won’t be the last win, I hope that the Achilles recovers quickly and I hope to be running again soon.

Stilton Splits

Race Report – Maverick Original Somerset Trail Race – Saturday 1st August 2015.

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!

The winner's podium!