Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Oxfam Trailwalker 100K Race Report

A couple of weeks ago I got a message from one of my Facebook friends, Bryce Alford, who was looking to find somebody to join Team Jersey for the Oxfam Trailwalker 100 Km. There was only about a week until the race, so it was very short notice, but one of his team members had pulled out at the last minute to go and run 363 miles without sleep. The race follows the South Downs Way from Queen Elizabeth Country Park (right round the corner from my parents), and finishes at the race track in Brighton. I know this route very well, particularly having run most of it only a few weeks previously. Given my poor (non-) finish at the SDW100, I thought this would be a good way to put a few demons to bed, so I decided to go for it with an aim to just enjoy myself! That is, after all, why I do this. 

This wasn't just a little jolly however, as we had a mission. The team put together by Bryce was aiming to beat the current course record of about 9 hours 50 minutes. This is about the same pace that I ran the first 100 Km of the SDW100, and that was a race that didn't go particularly well - so I figured that it was eminently doable under the right conditions. All we needed to do was hold a relatively steady pace of about 8 minutes a mile when we could, hike the uphills, and try and avoid spending a lot of time at the checkpoints. 

So on Friday, with very little planning or thinking on my part (the way I prefer to do things), I threw a bunch of things in a small rucksack and jumped on a train after work. I met Bryce and the rest of the crew at the station, and we headed over to QECP for registration and some food. The crew consisted of Mike Robinson and Mark Nicol who made up the rest of the four-man team, Steve Blampied and Robert Bean who would be doing the driving and filming (respectively), and Russ Bestley and Sarah Dryden who would be taking care of meeting us at checkpoints, and general crewing duties. We would also be joined for the first half of the race by Russell Tullett and Sandra Hopkins. It was a pretty slick crew, and there was a lot of knowledge of the route from many of the crew members, particularly Russ who had finished the race many times before. In addition, Russ and Bryce were part of the team that currently holds the mixed team record. 

I look like I have a handlebar moustache here, and I have to say - I don't hate it! Photo c/o Robert Bean.
Given that we were planning on running, our start time was later in the morning, so it was a nice gentle start to the day. Well, given that I'm usually up at 5 am, a 6 am start was practically a lie in! The race itself is not really a race so to speak. It is more of a team event, with the idea being to stick together and work to complete the challenge as one complete and cohesive unit. There were over 400 teams taking part, most of which were walking, but there were a few other teams running. The race is organised by the Gurkhas, and there were many teams from the various Gurkha regiments around the country, some of whom were also trying for that record. 

We lined ourselves up at the start and headed out at a brisk pace from the gun, heading up through the newly redirected South Downs Way through QECP. We were clearly on a mission, and soon found ourselves breaking away from the few other groups behind us, and catching up with groups from the earlier starts. A slight mistake in navigation meant that we were almost caught back up again, but I don't take the blame for this mistake as it was on a section that was slightly different to the main SDW100 route that I know. Other than this, my navigation was pretty much spot on - not that it's particularly hard on the SDW of course...

Me pretending to be an aeroplane, while Mark fights as hard as he can not to floor me. Photo c/o Sarah Dryden.
We were going well and the pace felt relaxed compared to my run a few weeks before. I was having an absolute blast, just running, chatting, and belting out Meatloaf songs to any poor person in my vicinity (Bryce, Mark and Mike must have been regretting asking me along pretty quickly). I was conscious of not pushing too hard from the start (which I had done at the SDW100), but at the same time we were there for a reason - these guys had come over all the way from Jersey and had raised a huge amount (over £9,000) for the Oxfam Nepalese relief fund - specifically to beat that record. That was our main goal, and at this point we were running just inside record pace (accounting for stops and the inevitable slow down later). Slowing down wasn't an option.

The hardest part of this challenge was the team aspect of it. One of the tenets of ultra running is that you sometimes need to be selfish to achieve your goals. Running with other people can be of huge benefit to get you through tough points, but at the same time it is an unwritten rule that a partner won't take it personally if the other person heads off without them. We all have bad points in races and it's unlikely that two people's bad spots will coincide. However, with this format you must all run together at all times, so one person's bad patch becomes everybody's bad patch. Add to that the fact that it's hard enough getting one person to the start line in good form, never mind four (I was the second replacement, with Mike already taking over for an injured Jersey runner), and the prospect of getting four runners to Brighton in a good time becomes quite an ask. 

I love the South Downs! Photo c/o Robert Bean.
And unfortunately the cracks began to show quite soon. Mark was struggling with his calfs after the first 15 miles or so, and later Mike's hip began to really play up. We were trying to skirt a line between encouraging a faster pace from Mark hoping that it was just a phase that would eventually pass, whilst not disheartening him with the thought that we were losing time. I wasn't too bothered about the slower pace however, as I was getting everything out of the day that I wanted - great weather (despite it pissing down with rain all the previous day), great company, and a chance to run on one of my favourite trails in the country again. The record wasn't my aim, although I would do everything I could to get it for the team. So I just bounced around trying to lift people's spirits, and probably served to just bug the hell out of the guys who were struggling. 

The pace had really slowed by the time we got to Clayton Windmills at 40ish miles, where we would be p...p...p...picking up our Gurkha. Because Bryce had managed to raise so much money, we had the opportunity to have a member of the Gurkhas join our team for one of the sections. Mark stopped here to have a massage on his legs to try and get things moving again, but we decided that the record was well and truly out of the window so we should aim to just get to the end in one piece. We still had a pretty good shot of beating the civilian record so that became our secondary goal.

Everyone trying desperately to get away from my singing. Photo c/o Robert Bean.
Mike's issues were now getting worse as well, but his solution to the sore hip was to just run continuously on it as walking was making him seize up. So he set off at his own pace, while Bryce, Mark, the Gurkha (whose name I have embarrassingly forgotten as I have left this report far too long...) and I made what progress we could. 

I'd like to say that things improved, and that Mark was able to break through his bad patch, but unfortunately it was a bit more serious than that. No amount of pain killers (which were being shotgunned in a rather worrying way), or encouragement from Bryce were able to help what seemed to be a pretty severe mechanical malfunction, and Mark was bloody hardcore in the way that he pressed on through it. He was in as much pain as I've ever seen any runner I think, and by the end Bryce and I were helping him to stay upright in the final sections.

The course record was out, the civilian record was gone, and it was looking dangerously like I wouldn't even make my train home (which was my only real concern). But we pushed through to the end, and ran into the race course in Brighton together as a team (despite Mike having already turned up there, run across the line, then come back to meet us). We finished in just shy of 13 hours, so it wasn't at all the time that we were originally hoping for. But we still ended up as the first civilian team (well the first complete team anyway - Ian Goodenough and Gareth Fish finished just before us, but minus half of their team), so it wasn't too bad all told. 

It's hard to see where the smiles end, and the grimaces begin! Loving my new scarf though. Photo c/o Robert Bean.
I was in a bit of a hurry at this stage as I only had about 20 minutes to get "clean" (or as clean as one can get with a pack of wet wipes after having run in the sun for half the day), get to the station, and jump on a train. After some quick goodbyes and thanks to everybody who helped, and some photos, I jumped in Russ' car and we zoomed off to the station. I got back home just after midnight, having had a fantastic day out on the Downs. I know that Bryce was very disappointed, but for me personally I got exactly what I wanted out of the race. I was feeling great about my running abilities for my next race, and most importantly I had just had fun. This is exactly what I want to happen this weekend at the North Downs Way, so I am just going to stop taking things so bloody seriously and just have a larf!

Having a larf at the end. Imagine having to share a seat with this guy on the train on a Saturday night... Photo c/o Sarah Dryden.
Thanks again to all of the people involved in the race, to Bryce for inviting me to join Team Jersey, to Mike and Mark for running with us and putting up with me all day, and to Russ, Sarah, Rob, Steve, Russ and Sandra for helping us along the way. Now roll on Saturday for the North Downs Way 100!


  1. Sam, that's a great report about a great day.

    For me the most significant part of that event was the amount of money Bryce raised, and for such a good cause, but I also saw four guys each push the envelope of what's humanly possible. From the perspective someone who isn't a distance runner what you each did was incredible.

    As with most sports and activities we often take for granted things that we are able to do which, to the outside world, seem impossible.

    In this case I saw Bryce's amazing fund-raising and constant determination to bring the team home, Mike running with a damaged hip because he found it harder to walk, Mark pushing through a level of pain that would have left me sobbing at the side of the road, and you finishing 62 miles looking as if you'd strolled around a park!

    Each of you, in his own way, appeared "superhuman" to an outsider and I feel privileged to have a played a very small part of it.

    I really hope I get another chance.

  2. Well that seems awesome! Roll on my first marathon in November, dodgy groins and all.


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