Sunday, 24 June 2012

Bredon Bash 2012

Every year I look forward to the EVRC's local invitational fell race, the Bredon Bash.  We start in picturesque Elmley Castle, run up to the top of Bredon Hill to the tower, and then come back down.  It's around 5.8 miles and on a sunny day can include some stunning views.  Alternatively, the mist can drop in and you can hardly see your hand in front of your face.  This year's edition, as with much of the past few weeks, was conducted under heavy cloud, steady rain, and a strong wind - horrible for the volunteers, but perfect for a fell race!

With the abysmal weather and entries only taken on the day, it wasn't much of a surprise that only 49 hardy (foolish?) souls from area clubs and villages entered.  Having enjoyed a stellar year so far, my main goal was to take some time off of my time from 2011.  The ankle deep water and mud in places would make that a bit more challenging, but the descent is usually more forgiving when the going is soft to swampy, so I just made sure my shoes were well secured and headed out at the front of the "chasing pack".

The local speedsters shot off the line and were out of reach within the first half mile.  There were a couple at the back of the lead group I hoped to pick up before the end, but my main goal was to hit the hill at the front of the mid-field finishers.

Once we had left the road and made our way through a field of tall wet grass (thank goodness for triple-knots!), the slippery ascent began.  I've run this route in most weather, but haven't seen the mud so deep for a couple of years.  Those in road shoes would have to pick their way gently to the top.  Those with more aggressive outsoles could run, although it was best to avoid the narrow "path" that had become more of a quagmire.  There are a couple of sections on the hill that I normally have to walk due to burning calves, but these were fewer and shorter than I'd previously managed.  I hit the top of the hill in 11th place, but with plenty to do to make sure I got my new course-best time.

The run along the top of the hill is gently undulating, and normally not too soft underfoot.  This day was no different.  The mud wasn't overly deep.  It was, however, frequently covered by several inches of water.  I usually try to avoid stepping into something whose depth I can't identify, but knowing the track helped me to go through many pools without too much worry, and I never had to worry about hot feet!

I reached the turnaround point still in 11th place (caught one, lost one) and gutted it out back to the top of the descent.  By now, visibility was incredibly poor as we ran in the low cloud.  However, with the wet path, I could hear the splashing runner behind me getting closer.  I hit the muddy descent at full speed, hoping to lose my pursuer as I ducked under branches and high-stepped through tree roots.  I don't like getting passed on descents, especially ones that I know well enough to race through even in these conditions.  But, with half of the hill left ahead, I was chasing.  Together, my erstwhile shadow (if only there'd been a light source!) and I chased down my clubmate Mark (he's generally quite a lot faster than me, but his shoes weren't cooperating with the terrain).

At the bottom of the hill, I checked back to find another runner closing fast.  When we broke free of the mud and back into the grassy field, I opened my stride to put as much space behind me as I could.  I'd managed to keep that 11th place for most of the race, and was far more interested in 10th than I was in 12th!  By the time I hit the final road section, I had closed back in on the runner ahead, and could see that he had left most of his energy on the hill.  With just under half a mile to go, I went for broke and put in an effort designed to overtake and also ensure I stayed ahead.  The speed sessions over the past few months have been paying off, because I still felt OK, even though it turns out I was running at my 5K pace (it's a bit downhill).

With some good runners to race against, I managed to keep my 10th place, but more importantly knocked a little over 40 seconds off my previous course best.  I finished wiped out but with a big smile.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Cleeve Cloud Cuckoo 2012

Once again, we made our way on Wednesday evening to Cleeve Common for the hilly "sprint" that is the Cleeve Cloud Cuckoo 5.5. Given the near constant rain over the past week, the clouds kindly broke up and headed north to give us a pleasantly sunny window in which to run.  The race makes a figure of eight around the top of Cleeve Hill, near Cheltenham, taking in a few short hills and a couple of longer ones along the way.  With a gentle uphill first quarter to sap the legs a bit, it gives a reminder that it always pays to be fully warmed up before the start.  None of the hills in the early section is particularly special, but if the lungs and calves aren't quite ready, you'll hear all about it.

Following the gentle loosener comes a delightful 950ft descent that is shallow enough to take at speed and steep enough to challenge one's ability to stay upright.  The payback is a climb out of the quarry bottom back onto the hill over the space of a mile and a bit.  The first half mile of the climb is quite steep, with a gentler finish to the high point of the race.  From here, we get a mile steady descent to recover on before a short, steep scramble before the wonderful 3/4mi downhill finish.

This year's event was well attended, with over 120 competitors.  The course was a little different to last year with an extra quarter mile in the post-quarry part of the "eight".  Nic joined in, racing this year rather than simply sightseeing, and taking more than a minute per mile off compared to 2011.  I knocked 14 seconds off on average, to finish considerably further up the field (close enough to see the 1st lady finish, which is usually a good target for me).  All-in-all, a great way to spend a Summer's evening.

Monday, 4 June 2012

The key to a good run can often be luck

Yesterday, I set out for a nice, easy 20 mile run.  I'd selected my route from the list of go-to routes (i.e. no map reading, close by, minimal planning required) and gone for a fairly flat affair.  With only 2-3 big hills, and lots of rolling stuff, I was looking forward to a nice, steady pace for 3-4 hours.  The fact that the weather was filthy only added to the fun - a little soft mud underfoot is always nice.  Some days, however, a nice route doesn't necessarily make for a nice run.

As I ran through Snowshill, one of the most beautiful villages around, it was sad to see people setting up tables and flags for the afternoon's Jubilee street party.  Rainwater was streaming off the tables like they were forming some kind of water slide.  Then, as I got to the top of my first hill, I found out just how much of an impact last week's sunshine had made.  The grass was knee-to-thigh high along the path, and very wet indeed.  I was taking in so much water every time I lifted a foot that my shoes began a lovely squelchy tune.  For about a mile, I was shipping more water than I could squeeze out with each step - lovely.

Once I was back out of the long grass, I began to wonder if I was losing my mind - I kept hearing voices from the trees.  Nothing clear, just the occasional human voice, with no other sign of life.  It was windy, and the sheep were making a racket, but I was pretty sure that my brain wasn't creating a voice from these ambient noises.  Eventually, I ran along a ridge with a clear view to the other side of a valley to see some sort of large event going on - obviously something with a PA system.  It was hard to see what was going on, because they were as shrouded in the low cloud as I was.  So, no evidence there that I'm losing the plot!

I happily carried on in the knowledge that I'm not losing my marbles into a field of bullocks.  Those who know me will be aware that I'm not that keen on cattle.  They're large, a little too curious, and somewhat unpredictable.  So, with reassuring words to the youngsters that I was only passing through, I carefully walked through their pasture.  Normally, I get a few stares and am left alone.  The boys were a bit bored, I guess, and decided to gather round.  It was a little disconcerting at first, as they formed a semi-circle and closed in to within a few feet.  I stopped and stood completely still, in the hopes that they would lose interest and wander off.  But, no, they decided to come a bit closer - not the response I was after!  With a little gentle hand waving, they backed away enough for me to try the slow walk again.  A couple kept very close quarters, but eventually they let me go.  Given the potential for young males of any species to be curious, energetic, and a bit thick in the head, I wasn't sure where the situation would go.  Any tips on how best to keep bullocks at a distance are most welcome.  Luckily, the next herd a few miles later was more interested in eating than they were in me.  I think I'll give that route a miss for a few weeks!

By the time I was done with the low-speed cattle driving, I was starting to get cold (yes, in June).  From there, the rest of the run was about keeping warm (hat, gloves, etc.) and keeping going.  Village after village had soggy street party decorations that looked a bit like I was beginning to feel - worse for wear.  After 15 miles, I decided to call it a day and give in to the dreary weather. So, I cut a couple of miles off and headed back to Snowshill by road.  On the up side, my new route took me through the lavender farm.  The smell of the new buds in the rain lifted my mood and I jogged happily back to the car.  Funny how the vagaries of the route can so easily alter the state of a tired and unfocussed mind!