Sunday 25 September 2011

Trailblazing on the Cotswold Way

It's always nice to have a goal.  To achieve any goal, you need a plan.  To achieve any goal, your plan has to be realistic and based on accessible steps - reasoned, understandable, and feasible steps.  I'd like to complete the Cotswold Way in a single stage - all 100+ miles of it.  Until now, that was a thought, perhaps a consideration, certainly a dream.  Now, it's a goal, and it's time to work out the plan.

So, what turns a dream into a goal?  First, you need just enough understanding to know that, with thought and effort, the dream is possible.  Then, add in just enough ignorance to get through the tough times, and you've got a real shot.  At the end of August, I dipped my toes  into the world of trail ultras far enough to know that I can go from Chipping Campden to Bath, and to understand that the key to reaching the end is to make a plan that accounts for the weak points I've discovered and builds on what went well.

My first "ultra" was a Trailblaze up the Cotswold Way.  Trailblaze is basically an "in your own time" open time trial on a variety of England's fabulous trails.  Participants choose their day, start time, and run one of approximately 10 distances on the trail.  Results are collected through the year.  It's a nice, low-key way to try out ultra running.

I've been planning this 3-day weekend for a few months now.  Originally, I would do my run on the Saturday and have two days to recover free from the constraints (and stairs) of the office.  Then, due to a few scheduling conflicts, the plan had to change to eating all day Saturday, run on Sunday, and recover on Monday.

Sunday morning started at 4AM, so we could drive down to the start point in Bath in time for me to have a full day's running.  My goal for this run was to do the 38 miles (61Km) to Dursley.  I'd never been on any of the trail between Bath and Cleeve Common (~70 miles), and intended to use this as a chance to run somewhere new.  But, I really didn't know how I'd react to the distance, so I was prepared to go up to the 103Km check point, if I were to have a miracle day.  Nic and I packed up the car with enough food and drink to get through a 14 hour run.  I hoped to use it all, while Nic hoped I'd spend a slightly more reasonable time on my first properly long run.

We got to Bath and found a serendipitous start - the Action Medical Research charity was hosting a ride from Bath to Reading.  It's often difficult to find a toilet open at 6:45 on a Sunday morning, and finding a random clump of trees isn't really an option in the middle of town.  But, Action were using Bath's rather fine Guildhall as its base, so Nic and I walked in along with all of the cyclists and were pleased to find such an accommodating facility.  So, in a shameless plug of thanks: if you're looking for a charity to give money to, drop a bit Action's way - they do good work and inspire new levels of sporting achievement among the public at large.

Bath's very nice Guildhall provided a great start to the day.

With the necessary pre-race preparations completed, it was time to find the starting dib point near Bath Abbey.  Having read in my route book and various accounts of route-finding in town that Bath's markers are quite well hidden, I took a few minutes to find a few markers to make sure I didn't miss my first turns (a pretty standard trick when I try a new route).  I know the standard markers well from the end of the CW I normally run.  But in Bath, the markers are subtly placed to maintain civic beauty.  Once I knew what I was looking for, I headed back to the Abbey and dibbed in - it was time to set out on my first ultra, but with no idea how far I'd go.

Ready? Set? Go!
Knowing that I'd have between 8 and 16 hours of the Cotswold Way ahead, depending on how my body would hold up, how much I could eat and drink, and how adventurous I would feel after the first 20 or so miles, I set off at a pretty easy pace.  In time-honoured tradition, I planned to walk up the steeper hills and run everything else.  So, it wasn't long before I was hiking up to Bath's famous Royal Crescent, following my trail guide to make sure I didn't end up on the wrong street.  The tiny way-marks weren't always the most clear, but I managed to find my way out of town without any significant confusion.

The iconic architecture of Bath

Once the crescent was behind me, Bath didn't really have much to offer in terms of interest.  I just carried on at an easy pace, concentrating more on keeping the route than keeping pace.  The hill to the check point at Upper Weston provided some nice views back down to Bath and over to Bristol.  The sun started to create a nice light and a bit of warmth, but the rains of the previous couple of days provided some very nice, long, wet grass and a rapid regrowth of nettles, just to keep things interesting.

Bye-bye, Bath!

Climbing up onto the escarpment
Once I'd passed the first check point, I was happy to find plentiful way-marks to help me on my way.  So, rather than continue to run with my route book in hand (it's a bit heavy - I should have just cut out the pages I needed...), I stowed it in my pack.  It wasn't long before I came up along the local race course.  Sadly, there were no horses out - it was only a race day for me.  I carried on along the twists and turns of the trail until I encountered a few golfers out for the Sunday morning round.  I'm sure they were enjoying the wet grass nearly as much as I was - the ball didn't look to be rolling too quickly on the greens. 

Landsdown Race Course - apparently the CW goes around it, rather than past it...
Before I knew it, I was onto the Landsdown Battlefield.  I stopped briefly to look at the monument and double-check the marker (it was blank due to sun aging) and then carried on down the hill.  It would seem that in my efforts to find a suitable location for a comfort break, that I failed to take sufficient notice of the right-hand turn part-way down the hill.  So, when I found myself on a road at the bottom of the hill and turned the page in my book to find that I shouldn't be on a road at all.

Now, it's never wise to be reading a map while on a technical descent with plenty of underbrush, but this little mistake also provided a stark reminder that it's always a good idea to have a good map as well as a route guide.  You see, when you're on the route, it's easy to follow the guide.  But when you're off route, and you're not quite sure by how much, then it's quite helpful to have a good map of the nearby area.  With a bit of thought and much turning of the page back and forth, I decided that a turn to the right would get me to the next check point with the addition of maybe half a mile or so.  I based this decision on the map's "Display Board - Battle of Landsdown" marking.  How was I to know that there was one just after the golf course and one just on the other side of the next check point.  So, I was not only on a different road to the one I thought I was, but I wasn't even looking at the correct page in my map book.  It's funny how running for an hour and a half can make one even more stupid than normal.  Eventually, by checking with a passing motorcycle instructor, following a few road signs, and calling Nic to confirm she was on the same road as me, I made my way to the check point (from the wrong direction) - an extra 1.5 miles and one hill later.

Relieved, and with the first leg done about 20 minutes later than planned, I stopped for a chat and some food.  Lessons of the leg:  1) have a very good map! 2) pay attention to where you've been as well as where you're going.  I was well off course by the time I realized it, and wasn't entirely sure how to get back to a known good point. My assumption was that I'd gone down the hill at about 20 degrees off bearing, so I could go around the farm and come to the check point with a small addition to the distance.  But, since I was looking at the wrong map page, I was completely stuffed.

Having refueled with some isotonic fluids, nuts, a cereal bar, and a peanut butter & jam wrap (corn tortilla for extra calories), I carried on in the correct direction and strangely found myself passing landmarks that I had been looking out for (and not finding) when I was looking at the wrong map page.  Refreshed, and enjoying the sunshine, I carried on towards Cold Ashton.  Once again, the trail was well marked (a track, with hedges on either side and no escape!) which was nicely reassuring following my little scenic diversion.

Excellent views from Cold Ashton
Cold Ashton appeared, and I retrieved the route guide to make sure I got through the village without incident.  The guide kindly mentioned great views, so I turned to my right and took a picture.  Turning into the village, the route passes through a quaint churchyard before making its way off towards Pennsylvania (long run!).

The day's first village church, at Cold Ashton

Wheat fields between Cold Ashton and Pennsylvania
It wasn't long before I encountered a fairly small field of dwarf wheat.  At this point (~12 miles in), I was running easily and comfortably.  The path through the wheat wasn't too narrow at first.  Then, I got to enjoy a gentle exfoliation around my knees.  Running through crops is a tricky business.  If you take your eyes off the path, there's always a stray stick from a passing dog or a hole or some other hazard waiting to trip you.  As a consequence, I realized I hadn't actually seen much of the passing scenery.  So, after a few hundred yards of being whipped by mini-wheat, I decided I might as well stop and have a look around.  By luck, I was in a bit of a dip, so the view behind was of golden wheat and blue sky (let's ignore the gathering clouds, shall we?).  Of course, I stopped for a quick snap to remind me of how beautiful it was and moved on.  Nic, while sitting around waiting for me near another field of wheat, had plenty of time and managed to capture the light much better.

Nic had time for some artistic pictures while she waited for me.

With the wheat behind me and the next check point about 45 minutes away, I was again running my way happily through the countryside.  To avoid getting lost, I had my map in hand.  It turns out, map in hand doesn't always help either...  I came to a gate where the sign pointed left.  The gate was on my right.  So, I was left with the option of staying on my current line and running into a field of unknown crops with no visible path or running on the other side of the gatepost on a marked path.  As someone who takes to these fields as a tourist, I try very hard to avoid running through crops, livestock, etc. that might cause problems for the people trying to make a living out of them.  So, I chose the latter (wrong), and added another 20 minutes (but only ~half a mile) talking to a herd of cattle asking their opinion.

The cows, being rather curious but unhelpful, simply stared blankly at me.  Perhaps they were only mirroring the look I had on my face when consulting my route guide.  Looking at it now, I can see quite happily that I was at Sands Farm.  However, at the time, I couldn't even figure out which map page I was on, to see how far away I'd gotten!  Eventually, I hopped a gate and went to knock on the farmhouse door.  I was met by a very kindly woman who pointed me up the road a bit to a path that would get me safely across the field and back on track.  I often find that being only one field out can be very disorienting, when one doesn't have a good map.  With a nice Ordnance Survey map, it's all quite easy.  I am used to reading them and can usually find my way pretty well even when I'm tired and thick-witted.  Why did I not have an OS map for this section of the Cotswold Way?  Stupidity, mostly:  I thought I'd bought one, but actually hadn't.  Anyway, typing this has reminded me that the next time I want a proper map, so I've just ordered it.

Anyhow, where was I... Oh, yes, I didn't know where I was.  I regained the trail and headed into Dyrham.  By now, I was feeling a bit frazzled and more than just a little hacked off.  I had managed, twice, at about seven-mile intervals, to lose my way and with it plenty of time and energy that would have been better spent going the correct direction.  I was also finding that PB&J on a corn tortilla may taste great, but it's a bit heavy on the gut.  I carried on for another mile or so and found Nic waiting for me at the next check point.  It was a bit of a surprise, because I'd forgotten that the check point was before reaching Tormarton, which was still a mile or so away.  I refueled, moaned a bit, happily received some encouragement, and carried on into the waiting sunshine.

With a bit more fuel on board, I was again feeling reasonably positive as I finally approached the M4.  I'd been waiting to cross the dreaded motorway for what seemed like hours.  To me, it marked the point when the route really enters the Cotswolds.  As I crossed over, early on a Sunday morning, this nightmare of a highway looked very peacful - so tranquil, in fact, that I was moved to capture its lack of jam for posterity.  Who knows when I'll see it so empty again?

The M4 - without much traffic!
Just after the M4, I entered the village of Tormarton.  This was the first time I've ever been able to look ahead on the Cotswold Way and be able to see a sign pointing off the road to the left, while standing at a sign pointing off to the right.  Rather than continue 50 yards down the road to leave the village, the CW takes a short diversion to take in the Church of St Mary Magdalene.  It's a nice church (I didn't stop for a photo because there were people heading in for the morning service), and probably quite worth the diversion.  But, I'd had enough silly diversions and the succession of gates and stiles that prevented me getting into a run were starting to wear on me.

Climbing through the sunflower fields near Tormarton

I think, in hindsight, that I wasn't really in the most positive frame of mind on the day, and that it made small irritants or confusions into major distractions.  So, when I entered a field of sunflowers waiting for the chop, I had finally had enough.  The "footpath" part of this field was lacking.  Sunflowers are quite tall and rigid, and some sort of ground cover was growing at about ankle-to-knee height in long tendrils.  Running was out of the question, and a machete would have been quite handy.  I picked my way through, chuntering away to myself that the CW in my neck of the woods is full of panoramic views, long, sweeping hills, and is generally beautiful.  Here I was struggling through a bunch of beat-up old sunflowers... Blah, blah, whine, whine.  And then, I crossed the A46 (again!) and the world opened up in front of me and looked wonderful again.

Dodington Park's ornamental bridge.

All of a sudden, I was in the countryside I love once again, and I could run freely again and enjoy it.  I passed through Dodington Park's vast open spaces with a smile.  Now 20 miles in, I was still holding it together on the flat and downhill sections.  But, uphills that needed to be walked seemed to be getting smaller.  Still, I carried on towards Old Sodbury.  It's apparently a very historically well-trodden area, according to Wikipedia.  It also contains at least one friendly person, who offered to cool me off with a spray while he washed his car (I politely declined) and one insane driver who confused every road user within sight as she drove towards opposing traffic in the wrong lane before veering into the road where I happened to be.  With much shaking of heads, we all survived and headed safely onwards. 

Old Sodbury is also home to the rather well-placed St John The Baptist church.  It looks out across the Severn Valley which was quite a picture in the sunshine.

Climbing up to Old Sodbury
By the time I reached the foot of the climb, I was starting to feel a bit more energetic from the recent refuelling, so I did the sensible thing and pushed any thoughts of running up the hill out of my head so I would still have some energy later on.  Hands on knees, I pushed up towards the church.  At the top, I encountered a very friendly couple who were sitting on a bench admiring the view.  They applauded my effort and proclaimed how much they enjoyed watching me make the ascent, and then kindly pointed out a variety of sights in the distance.  I enjoyed the 30 second breather to take in the view and then headed across the fields to Little Sodbury, where I had the chance to run through the ancient hill fort that mad the area such a focal point in years past.

Climbing through the ancient hill fort at Little Sodbury
From Little Sodbury, the going was clear and straight to Horton, with only a few gates and small hills to negotiate.  As I ran, I came across occasional bits of red and white tape that looked like it may have been placed to mark the way during the Cotswold Way Relay.  It seemed a little odd to be racing against the flow, but it was nice to feel a link with that excellent day.  With only about two miles left to my next meeting with Nic, I sent her a progress report and then thought to myself, "the last two times I did this, I got lost.  I'd better keep a close eye on where I'm going."  After making my way through another ancient fort, I duly entered a field where the waymark pointed towards two paths.  Each was as well trod as the other.  One path went up, the other straight along to the other side of the field (too far away for me to see the exit point).  Looking up the hill, the earth was pretty chewed up, like it would be if a hundred or so runners had descended in haste.  So, I guessed that up was the way to go and followed the trail for a short climb.

At the top, I found a couple of horses who displayed an air of indifference to my presence, as well as a lack of markings or any indication that I'd taken the correct path.  So, I headed back and decided to run straight down the hillside instead of working back along the path.  As a result, I got a nice 40 yards at about 50% gradient (amazingly fun!) before rejoining the path and finding the expected marker at the gate ahead.  Once again, the use of a route guide rather than a topographical map led me slightly astray.  Only a few minutes and one or two hundred yards extra this time, but it certainly worked the brain more than I'd have liked.

Here comes the rain!
It's not every day you get views like this!
As I made my way to Hawkesbury Upton, the patchy sunshine became suddenly much less patchy.  I donned my jacket and enjoyed watching the standard Holiday Weekend weather descend.  The rain didn't last for a particularly long time, but it was very heavy.  When I finally arrived at Hawkesbury, and the roaming restaurant that was Nic's car, I had to get into the car for my lunch of turkey wraps and assorted snacks.  Unlike the previous stop, I felt quite hungry - probably a good sign that I'd not eaten enough earlier.  With 3 small wraps, a ceral bar, some cashews, and a pint of sports drink on board, I got out of the car and started walking in the now bright sunshine.  After about 10 yards, I headed back to the car for some sunscreen.  I'd been out for around six hours, and I really didn't feel like having a sunburn.  Heading out again, I eased back into a run, looked around and put my jacket back on just in time for the rain.  Sunscreen turned out to be surplus to requirement for the next hour.

By this time, I was pretty tired, and my main focus was to just keep going.  The trail was generally good and there were a few more walkers than I'd seen for a while.  At Lower Kilcott, I was bemused to see a small lake surrounded by patient fishermen.  Judging by the general mood, I'd say it wasn't a good fishing day - they didn't have the look of men who's had much success.  I carried on down the road, wishing I could get back onto a trail.  With tired legs and feet, I'd much prefer the extra cushining the grass and dirt provide.

When the route finally left the tarmac, I encountered a sign telling me I had 5 miles left to Wotton-under-Edge.  At this point, the will to continue fled the general area.  With an hour to my next check point, and a likely two more hours to Dursley, I decided that I'd had enough.  Of course, over the next 20 minutes or so, I debated whether that was the correct decision. 

My legs had long-since stopped working in any way that I considered to be proper running.  On a reasonably flat section, I managed to get all the way back to high-speed hobbling and even loosened up enough to jog for a bit.  As I got closer to Wotton, I accepted that the tightness in my left hip was probably going to go away after a while, but the pain in my right achilles was real and needed to be treated very carefully indeed if I wanted to still be running for my target race at Abingdon in October.

Having finally accepted that I was going to finish at Wotton instead of continuing on to Dursley (officially 61K, but with my superb orienteering skills, at least 66K), I found myself running at below 6 minute mile pace down a steep hill.  I briefly thought about changing my mind yet again when the road flattened, the achilles muttered obscenities, and the check point appeared as if by magic.  The elation I felt at having finished told me that I'd made the right decision.  I stopped the clock 53 kilometers and nearly eight hours from my start in Bath, and headed off to find Nic.  We approached each other from opposite ends of Wotton, due to difficulties finding a place to park the car, finally meeting at a churchyard (hmm, finishing my run surrounded by headstones...).  We then walked back to the car along, as it happened, the Cotswold Way.  It was a joy to take off my shoes and sit down. 

Overall, the run was pretty amazing, if slightly less amazing than I'd hoped for.  I'd set out to break 50Km as a minimum, and had hoped to break 50 miles.  I managed the former, but lack of experience made the latter pretty much impossible.  Looking back, the preparation wasn't up to my normal standards, probably caused a bit by managing fear with an "ignorance is bliss" approach.  With a better map and a bit more preparation, I am confident that I could have reached Dursley in the nearly eight hours it took me to get to Wotton.  With a bit better refuelling strategy, I think I'd have managed the 46 mile point at Stroud.  But, it will take something more to get me through the longer distances, starting with a bit better support of my achilles.  The new shoes are now on the shelf and waiting for my short road season to end so I can give them a whirl.  After all, I've still got another 70 miles to go when I try again next year.  Add to that a bit more experience and a more positive attitude, and I've got a good chance of success.  Time to start planning!

Tired and happy to get the shoes off!

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