Come hell or high water

On Saturday I made a start on the first of three course recces of the Stour Valley Path 100 route. This will be my next big race and I had been really looking forward to running it; the start of the race is only a thirty minute drive away, and the finish is a couple of miles (as the crow flies) from where my brother and his family live; it seemed rude not to give it a go, really.

Having spent last week combatting a throat infection and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself, I knew early on that the plan for Saturday would be somewhat kill-or-cure… at the outset it looked something like this:

  1. Load bikes onto newly-purchased (second-hand) bike carrier (Β£10 on Gumtree – massive bargain!)
  2. Drive to Clare and dump my bike at Clare Castle country park (CP2 on race day)
  3. Drive back to Newmarket, park up, and head to the start of the route (taking leave of Wingman Rich who was wending his way to Clare by bike)
  4. Enjoy a leisurely, Summer’s day long run from Newmarket to Clare (23 and bit miles)
  5. Eat all the food in the Pub
  6. Cycle back to Newmarket in the late evening sunshine (17 miles)
  7. Drive home

Optimistic? Possibly. What actually happened went more like this:

  1. Spend the best part of an hour swearing as we tried to work out how do fix the bloody bike carrier to the car.
  2. Shut little finger in the boot of the car – more swearing and A LOT of pain. Didn’t cry though.
  3. Set off for Clare only a couple of hours later than we meant to.
  4. Stop on the side of the A14 to re-fix parts of the bike carrier to the car
  5. Arrive at Clare country park and dump my bike
  6. Drive to Newmarket and find a parking space, but only after some t***er stole the one I was waiting for whilst Rich was taking his bike off the carrier; more Shouting and Swearing.
  7. Find the start of the route
  8. Say bye to Rich and start running
  9. The first mile and a half out of Newmarket is a bit boring, being mainly along the side of the main road. Somewhere along here it starts raining
  10. Turn off the main road onto the Stour Valley Path proper (but only after missing the turning because it was so overgrown) and begin what would would turn out to be a four-and-a-half hour battle with brambles and stinging nettles. I kid you not. That path is an absolute joke. Of the 23+ miles that I ran I would say that roughly 35% of it is virtually impassable, with many other parts not runnable. Stinging nettles up to my armpits (and sometimes taller than me) knit together across the path with no end in sight, brambles catching my ankles, long wet grass flaying the skin from my legs… and the bits that were clear of the aforementioned were either submerged (completely) in water, or across the middle of fields where the clay topsoil clung to the bottoms of my trainers for dear life and added a couple of kilos of resistance to the running. I think the low point came at about mile 14, where I stood in front of [yet another] wall of nettles, drenched to the skin (had I mentioned the biblical rain? It hadn’t stopped since I left), in the middle of a thunder storm, and swore some more and had a bit of a cry because I didn’t want to get stung any more. I had to find a tree branch to fight my way through in the end. At 15 miles I came across a similar looking stretch of nettles and lost the will to live, but here there was a churchyard I could cut through instead – so I climbed the gate, sheltered in the church porch (which turned out to be Kedington church) and rang Rich for an extended whinge to his answerphone about how cold/wet/stung/miserable I was, the fact that It had taken me 3 hours to ‘run’ 15 miles, and that I would probably be a bit later than expected to Clare… Feeling considerably better for having shared my misery, I gave myself a stern talking to, shouldered my pack, and set off again. Mercifully, there were only a two or three really bad patches of nettles in the remaining 8 miles, although the rain and mud never abated, and I arrived at Clare to find Rich sheltering under a tree, similarly drenched, and we walked in the final half a mile together.
  11. We ate ALL THE FOOD in the pub. And drank all the warm drinks. I was unreasonably pleased to find that we’d picked a pub posh enough to have *actual little towels* in the bathrooms… so I used a couple to wipe the mud off and generally get dry (apologies, Swan Inn, but you do have very nice bathrooms, very nice staff, and extremely nice food!). Fortunately we’d had the foresight to bring warm dry clothes to change into for the cycle home.
  12. At some point during dinner we decided that the cycle back could eff-off to the far side of somewhere very far away
  13. Get a taxi back to Newmarket
  14. Drive back to Clare to collect the bikes
  15. Drive home through some really bad flooding that nearly saw us stranded
  16. Eat more food
  17. Bath
  18. Collapse in bed

My legs that evening:

And the following day:


Not pretty, and very, VERY itchy. I would add a picture of the belly-button chafing too… but maybe not.

Things wot I learnt:

  • Always take a warm/waterproof layer; it is possible to get very very cold even in the summer – I would have been stuffed if anything had happened to stop me moving
  • Don’t forget your silver blanket (see above)
  • That path is a bitch
  • The navigation function on my Suunto is the mutts nuts (but I should have had a hard map too)
  • I can run 23 miles on no fuel and 500ml water and still be ok at the end, so my fat metabolism must be pretty decent
  • The elevation profile lies – there are no hills
  • Never, EVER, put magnesium oil on legs that have been stung to buggery by stingers. It BURNS us. Gollum.

I was seriously questioning whether this was a race that I wanted to run for large parts of Saturday, but now I feel like the course itself has thrown down a challenge to me and there’s no way I’m going to let it go now. I’ll run the other sections of the route over the next month and see if they’re any more inspiring! And please, please, no more nettles.

8 thoughts on “Come hell or high water

  1. Sam, you is one tuff nut. No really, that sounds truly awful. I hope a lot of people recce it before the event so those nettles get a good trampling. It can only be better on the day!! Good luck with it.


  2. Oh, we’ve all been there. The recce where you struggle to manage 2 mph, and look like you’ve been though a war zone. Definitely a rites of passage. On race day hang back a bit and let the others break the path for you! I’d also agree about the map. A Garmin/Suunto can be great for navigating a course, but when you want to find a way round an obstacle they aren’t much cop.
    Well done on toughing it out. Tea tree body lotion works well on legs like that; I’ve been using it for the last 24 hrs! πŸ™‚


    • ‘struggle to manage 2mph, and look like you’ve been through a war zone’ Exactly that. It’s comforting to know it was something that had to happen πŸ™‚ Thank you so much for the amazing tea tree lotion tip – I had some in the cupboard but hadn’t thought of using it! Feeling much better already – I’ll make sure I always have some from now on.


  3. I’ll get in touch with the council about the early sections of the path. They shouldn’t let it get so overgrown. You definitely won’t notice the hills much in the early stages with fresh legs. Believe me, you will definitely notice them later on though.

    With any luck we will have dry weather leading up to the race to prevent the mud!

    Hopefully our mandatory kit list for the race makes sense now πŸ™‚


    • Hi Matthew, thanks for reading and commenting πŸ™‚ Sorry to take such an age to reply; I’ve been away in the Lakes. I’ll follow the link you posted and log the problems with the council. It sounds like the latter 2/3 of the route are in much better shape! Looking forward to the 13th!


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