Sunday 26 February 2012

Watch us recce the mic... Psyche!

I am well known amongst my friends for my navigational prowess. So much so that I have been dubbed "Sam-Nav" by some. Unfortunately, it is my apparently poor navigation and innate lack of direction that have earned me this name, never more apparent than my 120 % coverage of the 35 mile Shires and Spires ultramarathon last year. I maintain that my various navigational misgivings and geographical embarrassments have been a result of bad luck rather than any defunct internal compass, but to be on the safe side I have decided to improve my chances of success this year by recceing some of the routes that I am due to run in the next few months to get a feeling for the points where I am most likely to go wrong.

My first big race for this year is the Thames Path 100 on the first weekend in March, and for me this is my race to shine and get a nice fast 100 mile PB. It's pretty much completely flat, following as it does the River Thames from Richmond to Oxford. I headed out to Henley-on-Thames (the halfway point) at 4:30 am, with an aim to leave the car at the station, run the 50 miles to Oxford, get the train back to Henley, and drive back again afterwards. It was going to be a long day! The weather was pretty much perfect - crisp and icy underfoot, but sunny and clear. Allan Rumbles had been out a few days earlier on the same section and found the mud to be difficult to negotiate. For me, it was nice and firm with the cold wintery temperatures. I got going at about 7:30 am, heading West and following the signs for the Thames Path, as well as the handy map created by James Elson which I had uploaded to my Garmin.

It was a lot colder than this picture may indicate!

The day went pretty smoothly, until I got to Benson where I hit my first real snafoo. I followed the route as marked up to the lock, only to find a group of bemused-looking workers barring my way. They directed my attention towards a sign that told me that they were working on the lock, and I would need to take the diversion route, crossing the bridge that I had passed about 3 miles earlier. Bugger. So back I went, only to find a massive "DIVERSION" sign on the bridge which I probably should have followed first off. My mind was too tuned into hunting out the acorns which mark the Thames Path... The diversion is actually pretty well sign-posted as long as you don't miss the first one. But I'd rather make this cock-up now than on race day!

Despite my set-back putting my schedule out of whack, I was having a good day. Unfortunately I started to develop a really quite severe muscular cramp in my stomach that was so bad as to make running really quite difficult. I ended up walking about 10 miles, and very nearly threw in the towel completely and found my way to the nearest station. But I persevered, and had a quick stop off in Abingdon to find a chemist and take something for my stomach. I had a small rest and had something quick to eat, then headed off for the final 10 miles.

I arrived in Oxford about 3 hours later than I had expected. By the time I had caught the 3 trains back to Henley, it was already gone 9 pm. By the time I rolled into the house, it was almost midnight. A long day with some issues, but very productive nonetheless!

A week later, I found myself on the road "oop north", heading to see Chris Baynham-Hughes for a quick run around the Lake District. I am joining Chris on his Bob Graham Round in May, and figured that it would probably be a good idea to check that I was able to deal with the hills that we would be encountering along the way. I turned up at Chris' house at about 11pm, said a quick "hi", then headed straight to bed. We were up at 4am and on the road up to the Lake District to assemble our rag-tag group for the day.

Joining Chris and me would be our guide Simon (who knows the route like the back of his hand), our driver Wayne (who kindly gave up his day to drive 4 sweaty runners around between the sections), and Karl (Wayne's son, who is a bit of a speed demon and already top of his age category at fell running). I felt like I may be the weak link, with little experience in the hills, but I was hoping that my endurance levels would make up for it.

We had been having a lot of snow recently, and it was a little up in the air whether I would even make it up there. As it happens, most of the snow had gone from ground level, and my drive up was very easy. It was a different story at the peaks however. The higher we went, the worse the visibility got, and the deeper the snow got. The snow had a very annoying consistency; just crisp enough to hold your weight, until you decide to push off to move forward, at which point you lost all momentum as your foot dropped a foot and a half. It was tough going but a lot of fun! Karl and I had decided to ignore all common sense and run in shorts. I think we made the right choice!

We covered two legs of the BGR (ironic considering I was in shorts...); the last and first of the five sections. Unfortunately these are perhaps the worst of the legs in that you get very few peaks for your work. We covered about a quarter of the total distance, but only managed to bag 7 of the 42 peaks. It was still a lot of fun though, and I especially liked charging down the side of the mountains through the snow. Fell runners are definitely a different breed to ultrarunners though. They are able to pick out paths and routes that I just don't have the eye for. Give me a clear trail any day. But as long as I have somebody showing me the way, I'm good to go! We finished up in the afternoon after about 8 hours of running, and headed back to Chris' where his lovely wife Laura had made dinner for me. After scoffing it down, I was back on the road back home to my own lovely wife and bed. Another full but successful day!

Less than a week later (no rest for the wicked), I was back on the road for my next recce. This time I was heading up to Barton-upon-Humber to make my way along the first 55 miles of the Viking Way. Jo Kilkenny and Mimi Anderson were kind enough to let me join them, and it was really nice to have some company for the day. However, the first step was getting there. The logistics were sort of interesting... Step one was to drive to Horncastle after work, leaving my car at the hotel where we would ultimately finish up on the following day. The next step was to catch a bus to Lincoln, which is easier said than done when the damn thing doesn't turn up. I was panicking a bit as I waited for the next one, knowing that it did not leave me much time to get to my train (the only train of the day). I made it to the station with a couple of minutes to spare, and headed off to catch 3 trains up to Barton-upon-Humber. I had originally planned on getting a taxi to the hotel where Jo and Mimi were already camped out, but I misjudged how big the station would be. There was nothing there, so instead I strapped on my bag and ran the 3 miles over the bridge to hunt out the hotel. I made it before midnight, apologised profusely to Jo and Mimi for waking them up, and curled up on the floor for a (pretty terrible) night's sleep.

We woke up entirely unrefreshed and raring to go! I was confident that navigation should be pretty easy, since Jo had already recced the route and I had updated it to my Garmin (expressly forbidden for race day, but useful for pre-race checks). It was another fantastic day weather wise, and despite our lack of sleep we were feeling in high spirits. We started off well, with Mimi and I trying our hardest to keep up with Jo's blistering pace. We took in the route with Jo pointing out points to watch out for along the way. There are, worryingly, a lot of these points. At various points, we came to an intersection with absolutely no indication of where to go next. Between Jo and the Garmin we were able to follow the route without issue, but it did worry me how I was going to cope with the rest of the route on race day. I think more recces are likely in order before then...

Wait for me Mimi!
The night rolled in a little faster than we expected, and unfortunately we were short one head-torch, so with about 5 miles to go we decided to cut things short and get a taxi to the end in Horncastle. We rocked up to a small village pub, and (much to the bemusement of the regulars) I wondered in to ask for a number for a local taxi firm. Unfortunately, being in the arse-end of nowhere, taxi companies were not as prevalent as I may have hoped. They kindly found the number for the nearest taxi firm, and we gave them a call. Here is how the conversation went:

Jo: "Hi. Would it be possible to get a taxi from Fulletby to Horncastle please?"
Taxi: "No"

Erm. Right. So we tried again:

Jo: "Erm, hi. Do you know any other taxi companies that we could use?"
Taxi: "Ha ha ha! No!"

Well, that made up our minds for us at least! So I gave Jo my head-torch, and ran alongside Mimi to avoid going arse-over-tit. In general, this worked brilliantly, although occasionally my illuminatory deficiency was forgotten, and I would finish locking a gate only to find my companions haring off through the woods without me.

All in all, the recces have gone brilliantly well, and I feel a lot better having done them. I plan on doing a few more before each of the races to get as comfortable with the courses as possible. In particular, it's looking like the Viking Way is going to be a bit of a bugger to navigate on the day, so if I can get the majority of it covered in advance this can only help. I can imagine there being a lot of opportunities to go wrong in 147.8 miles of running... Luckily my navigation is second to none! Ahem...

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