Sunday 14th August 2016
Abigail: ‘What’s a trophy, Mummy?’
Me: ‘It’s a special prize you get in races if you run fast [relative term] and come first, second, or third’
Abigail: ‘And did you get it for running the fastest, Mummy?!’
Me: ‘Yes, sweetheart, I did!’
Abigail: *thinks for a minute* ‘Right, let’s go into the garden and do some running races…’
Me: *dies inside*
Saturday 13th August 2016 – SVP day
Finally, the day arrives when I can stop thinking about the race and actually get on with it. I’ve slept neither well nor badly, and I breakfast as usual. Katie and Lee arrive to pick us up just as I finish faffing with my race bag, and we’re off and away over to Newmarket for registration. We arrive with loads of time to spare and amble down to the Memorial Hall together; the 7am wave has already gone, and the atmosphere in the hall is relaxed and friendly. I check in and receive my race number, and we find some chairs to appropriate until the race briefing. I prefer to be relatively quiet in the immediate pre-race hubbub, but I am an inveterate people-watcher and this is a great environment in which to indulge. There are those who, like me, like to sit calmly in the corner; those who chatter at length and excitedly about past and future events; those who have all the kit; those who don’t (but who you underestimate at your peril); greetings between old friends and adversaries, who are all smiles until they get out on the course… I love watching it all, and look forward to greeting old friends of my own once I’ve seen a few more races and know a few more people in this lovely and remarkable community of nutters.
The race briefing is short and to the point, and then we amble off down the road towards the start area. Goodbyes and goodlucks from my crew as I hang out at the very back of the field, and then we’re off on the dot of 9am.
My aim is to be pretty much last through the first checkpoint, not wanting to get involved in a start that’s too quick to sustain. Sure enough a large group of male runners, along with three or four of the women, steadily pull away down the road and are soon beyond my sight. I’m happy; I’m a most asocial runner, infinitely preferring my own company, especially in races, to that of others. It soon becomes clear that the path is in much, much better condition than when I ran it a couple of months ago. A prolonged dry spell has seen many of the nettles and brambles die right back, and harvest is in full swing now, so a lot of the long grass along the sides of the fields has met its doom too. The first 3 or 4 miles was some of the worst I encountered back then, so when I see how decent it is now I’m in no doubt that the rest of the course will be easier too. I’m relieved.
In addition to the path waymarking, we now have paint arrows on the ground and confidence tape in the branches, making navigation a little easier. Still plenty of opportunities to go wrong, though, and I take one of these early on by turning right into a dead-end housing estate, instead of leftish across the road. It’s easily put right, and I make a mental note to try and remember to look for the arrows more consistently through the day.
As I rejoin the correct route I couple up with two other runners. One of them is Maryann who will eventually run a massive 58 minutes inside the course record for second. She turns out to be the living embodiment of the kind of runner I’d like to be; very friendly and unassuming, relaxed, and totally kick-ass. I like her immediately, which is just as well as we spend the next 30 miles to-ing and fro-ing, sometimes with a bit of distance between us, sometimes running companionably together. At one point we pause and admire the mechanical monster of the combine harvester that has just crossed the field right in front of us, spewing half a ton a minute of chaff and dust into our faces, and I muse about how much my farm-machinery-mad three year old would love to be standing where I am now. I wonder whether I should take a picture for her (it’s a Claas Lexion 600 if anyone’s interested!), but Maryann reckons I can be excused that today, and so we wade onwards through the straw.
CP2/Crewing point 1
I execute a neat bit of stealth overtaking at CP1; I’m not stopping here, but I do grab a quick drink and am out of the tent before the other lady realises I’ve been through. Maryann is ahead of me for the stretch between CP1 and CP2, and when I arrive at CP2 (where I’ll also see my crew for the first time) she is there grabbing some food, as is another of the 9am ladies, who is changing her shoes. I extract my Minion party bag (much to the admiration of the aid station volunteers) and fill it with ‘lunch’, fill up my water reservoir and head out before either of the others. My crew have strict instructions not give me placings at this point, but unfortunately they can’t stop my brain working, and when I get to them by my calculations I am in 2nd place.
‘Do you want us to tell you?’ says Rich. Yes. ‘You are in 2nd. Do you want to know how far ahead she is?’ No. Actually…yes. ‘3 minutes’. Ha! Game on. I thought she’d be miles ahead. We say our goodbyes and off I march munching the food from my bag, still making forward progress. I have ditched my empty fuel bottles for fresh ones and am all set for the next 20 miles.
I keep expecting to catch a glimpse of first lady. Surely I’ll see at least the back of her in the distance before CP3? I don’t. Never mind. I make an unscheduled water stop at the CP in Long Melford. It’s warm and I ran this section in the heat before without enough water. The course becomes progressively more undulating after Sudbury, and I don’t want a repeat of the dizzy disorientation I had the last time I arrived in Bures. As I exit the aid station I notice the crew of the leading lady sitting there looking like they’re still waiting for her. Strange, but I don’t think much more of it until later.
Over the next ten miles I start to pass more and more runners from the 7am start, as well as some of the men from my own start. Two of them tell me on separate occasions that I’m in the lead, but not having passed the other lady I’m still in doubt. Turns out she made a minor navigational detour and I slipped past her almost straight out of CP2. I’ve also lost Maryann, having run with her again after Clare Country Park. She hung back a bit somewhere before Kentwell Hall and although I assume I’ll see her soon, we don’t actually meet again until we’ve both crossed the line.
CP4/ Crewing point 2
There’s a crowd of supporters at check point 4 – I run in to the tent to cheers and applause from the people gathered in the pub car park and garden, and grab a cup of coke and some watermelon while the aid station volunteers wrestle with my reservoir and bag. I’m seeing my crew a bit further along, so don’t want to spend too long here. I munch the watermelon as I make my way down the road to them, and note that there is a bit of discomfort from my right glute down to the outside of my right knee.
Rich, Katie, and Lee are camped out under a tree – they confirm that I am now in the lead and we swap empty tailwind bottles for full, I change my t-shirt, wipe my face, grumble a bit about my knee, and politely decline the chocolate raisins – I can’t seem to face them today. I’ve been looking forward to seeing these guys for some miles and, as always, the pit stop lifts my spirits. I walk off down the road, still fiddling with a couple of bits on my bag, break into a trot, and then…
My right knee is white hot as I try and bear weight on it. I slow to a walk and it’s still no better, then falter to a standstill. For several eternal seconds my race is over; DNF at 44 miles. I am beyond disappointed.
As I hesitate where the path leaves the road, voices rage in my head ‘but you’re in the lead – you can’t not give it a go!’, while another one, the one that talks sense, reminds me that I promised not to break myself for this race, not even for first place. I have no idea whether this is the start of something hideous that’ll lay me off running for weeks, or just one of those in-flight problems that’ll pass as the race progresses. ‘Just ignore it and maybe it’ll go away’ said no physio, ever.
Still I hesitate. In under two minutes I could be back with my crew, unpinning my number, and I wouldn’t have to push on through. But… I am not at home to pain today. At least, I am pretending not to be. Sitting comfortably on the sofa while pain rings the non-functioning doorbell in an attempt to get my attention. ‘Not today, thank you’ as my Dad would have said.
‘Oh for God’s sake, Sam, just GET MOVING’.
The decision is made. I am committing to getting to the next check point, whether by running, or by seven miles of limping, I don’t yet know, but I will at least find out. I hobble down the side of the field, heavily favouring one side, left across to the gate on the other side, paying careful attention to my lower body, then it’s through the gate and down the lane towards Bures Watermill. By the time I’m on the other side of the river I’m moving much more freely. A navigational point claims my attention, and by the time I check back in with my legs a few minutes later, the pain in my knee has dissipated, taking with it much of the excess stiffness in my glute medius, piriformis and ITB on that side. Now I hurt equally on both sides, but it’s just stiffness from moving in one plane of motion for too long, nothing show-stopping here.
From Bures the going gets a bit easier again. The plan is not to stop at either CP5 or CP6, instead I’m meeting my crew at a small point where the path joins a country road about 6 miles from the finish. In reality I stop at both – unable to resist the lure of coke and watermelon.
Crewing point 3
Having kidded myself at least 4 times in as many miles that ‘this is the start of the downhill track towards the crew point’, I do eventually trot down the track to the sight of my fabulous support team waiting at the end. One last bottle swap, and I ditch anything I don’t need to be carrying any more. I also pick up a little passenger: baby bunny.
This all started at NDW50, when Blue Bunny (second left) joined me for the last stretch. It’s my way of taking Abigail with me on these crazy adventures, and hopefully giving her something she can relate to when she sees pictures of me racing. At least until she’s old enough to come along and join in the fun. This time it was the turn of baby bunny (far left).
It has been suggested that I should take them all in strict rotation… but I reckon taking Mr Boing (far right) along might be extracting the Michael a bit. And I’m not sure I’ve got a bag big enough!
However, I digress. 2nd and 3rd were 9 and 10 minutes behind at 44 miles, and on consideration, I need to get a wiggle on to make sure of this. Six miles to go.
My crew have, in fact, put the Fear of God into me about how close the other ladies might be. I turn my legs over and up the ante. This last section through Dedham Vale is my favourite; along the river to Flatford Mill (making sure not to make the same ridiculous navigation error I made on the recce of this patch), past the Mill itself (site of John Constable’s famous Haywain painting), and the barn with the beautiful climbing roses, and then you exit the track and there are two fields, a small overgrown section of path, and with half a mile to go you hit the road and it’s downhill all the way.
Halfway across the first field I spot 5 walkers and a dog coming out along the path in the opposite direction. They are very tall, and one of them is wearing a familiar-looking hat. My heart bursts in my chest as I recognise my brother and his family come out to meet me so close to the finish. I am so happy to see them, and so happy that they could see me racing on a day where I could not have run any better. I wave frantically and they wave back. As I approach, my brother (an accomplished photographer) raises his camera and takes some pictures. Then I am amongst them with no time to stop, but happy to hear my sister-in-law tell me I am 6th overall. Then I am pushing along the path with Andy running along behind me saying ‘I just want to get a picture of you running through the cows up ahead’. I grin. Typical Andy. I warn him, only half in jest, that today I will not be running backwards and forwards through the cows several times until he has got the perfect shot – I know what he’s like.
And then he’s shouting ‘Good luck! See you at the finish!’ and I’m alone again. I hit the path, then the road, and I’m sailing downhill. Surely it’s mine now. I have lost track of whether I’m on for the course record, but as I cross the road at the bottom of the hill I take a long hard look back – no one in sight. I’m being directed by the hi-vis clad marshals towards the football field and the finish area, and finally, finally, I let myself believe I’ve done it. I can hear them announcing my name as I approach the line, and then.. that’s it! I’ve arrived! A medal is hung round my neck, a t-shirt is in my hand, and I’m posing for a picture at the finish line. I won! And as it happens, I also knocked 69 minutes off the women’s course record. A good day at the office all round 🙂
Hugs from my crew, hugs from my family, and congratulations from the Race Director. What an amazing experience and a great race. I could not be happier – there is not one thing I would change about this day and this race.