A regular running to work program over the last few years combined with regular British Military Fitness classes has kept me pretty fit and I’m grateful for it (incidentally, its meant that I’ve been saving dosh by running and turning up to work generally in a focussed and clear minded manner: check this post out).
But the gentle Thames Towpath or the lightly rolling contours of Hyde Park hasn’t fully prepared my legs for what I was about to experience on the 29th annual North Downs 30km trail race held in Kent over the weekend just gone!
My usual rolling program of at least one competitive run per month has gone to pot over the last quarter with my race partner being injured and the girlf recovering from torn tendons suffered in Hellrunner last November. So the recovery races we’ve done have been at a gentle trot and so I was keen to test myself in a race over a proper length.
Although what I should have done was give myself more than a week’s notice and perhaps chucked in some hill training for a fairly serious 30km cross country jaunt…!
So to continue the theme of the year so far, the weather was grey and blustery and rain threatened quite menacingly as I turned up at the start point at Cascades leisure centre just on the outskirts of Gravesend in north Kent.
Being in it’s 29th year and so highly rated in the Runners World website (it polled 2nd last year in the ‘off road race’ event category), I was expecting slick organisation and I wasn’t disappointed. The leisure centre hall where registration was seemed full of wiry club runners and perhaps didn’t give the impression of a race for the real beginner. Although saying that, 30km probably isn’t a real beginners distance for a run!
It was clear there were cliques of local running clubs turning up to make a day out of this so I quietly performed my stretches like Billy-no-mates in the corner. People slowly ambled their way to the start line for 10 minutes before the official 10:30 kick off and looked nervously at the skies. But the rain was holding off, the announcer gave us the (what seems now to be obligatory) ‘elf and safety briefing at these races.
And we were off! To make the run a true 30km they put us around a lap of the leisure centre field. This always makes me laugh when organisers do this; it reminds me of being at school again going round the sports field. But doing this lap is interesting, as you can see the elite chaps speed off and roughly work out where you might be in the field. I wasn’t expecting too much as I’ve not done a long run of over 10 miles for quite some time, and 18-19 miles of rolling cross country ahead of me is far different from London pavements whilst running to work!
After a lap of the field, we were then off down narrow paths and bridleways. This can be frustrating on shorter runs as it limits over-taking, but on brutal long runs such as this, its not such a bother as the field sorts out its natural order over the course of the race in a Darwinian manner.
I had studied the map of the course before hand, which included a note of the height gains and losses. So I was prepared for a gentle incline and then some fairly steep hills in the first half. But what goes up must come down, and the downhill section really gives the opportunity for the brave or long legged folk to really make up some time on the field.
I had packed 4 gels and some ‘sports beans’ in my pouch and took these at regular 35/40 minute intervals. It always surprises me to see people without Energy gels on a race like this, as energy gels definitely give a quick boost when the legs are feeling like jelly. The sun poked his head out and the grey skies were replaced by a bluebird day with the occasional cloud just to spoil things for a second. But all were grateful for the change in weather, and the wind made sure that there was no problem over heating.
The countryside and scenery were really uplifting on the run, and it’s always worth bearing that in mind when entering long races. Go for ones where you’ll enjoy the views and the pain seems much less! However, this isn’t the best part of the north Downs and at times we were forced over major road bridges and some of the fields were a bit grubby.
Real highlights were fields of red poppies just over the half way mark which seemed to stretch forever and give a real boost just when needed. There was also an interesting mix of hills, enclosed woods and groves, open fields and mud and trails combined with approximately 15% of ‘on – road’ running. This meant a varied and interesting run with full concentration required.
Having not run this before, I was unsure of the time I was to expect, but thought if I could aim for 5mins per km then I’d end up somewhere around the 2:30 mark. This seemed a real possibility over the first 2/3 of the race but, despite reading the map, I hadn’t quite counted for the extent of uphill over the last part of the race! I got past the 29km at about 2hrs 31 mark and thought with a push I might sneak in at just over 2:36. I didn’t want to come outside 2:40 and certainly not 2:45. They are just internal goals you set yourself on the way round to give you motivation.
However, the last kilometre was more like a mile (well, it felt that way and it DEFINITELY was more than 1km!), and popping sports beans like smarties I pushed for the finish line. The skys opened at this stage and the rain started again. It’s also not the prettiest part of the course and I was keen to get over the line and done for the day.
Back we went for another, smaller, detour around the leisure centre field and the finished line approached with 20 seconds to go before the 2:40 mark. So I kicked like (I thought!) Seb Coe, although to onlookers I would’ve looked like I was accelerating out of butter, but the last push got me in 7 seconds ahead of 2:40 and it transpired in 62nd place out of 435 runners.
Boy did my legs hurt! The muscles required for running a race like this are different to road running and I had to lie down for 15 minutes in the changing rooms grimacing and gurning in pain! It was quite unexpected and I resolved not to enter such a serious distance with only a weeks notice and gentle road running training.
But it was worth it. I headed back home, slapped the BBQ on and relaxed knowing I’d done myself a real favour that morning by pushing myself almost to my limits and kick started my training again. England lost on penalties to Italy which couldn’t even ruin my mood. It’s those endorphins you know. Damn fine!