Tuesday 3 December 2013

Two-Time Piece of String Finisher? I'm a Frayed Knot.

Blimey, what a day! Another year, another edition of the World's Most Pointless Race (TM) as 13 hardy souls (aka idiots) turned up on a Friday morning in Streatley to run the Piece of String Fun Run. Last year was the inaugural race and was brilliant despite a few teething problems (mostly due to the horrendous weather). But this year they were going all out!

After a brief race briefing ("please don't die") it was left to one of the runners to decide the fate of the group - an "honour" which I was bestowed with last year for paying my £1.47 donation to the RSPCA by internet transfer rather than by postal order (a far more embarrassing prospect, particularly when it costs £1.50 to get the order made up and you're holding up an entire room full of people waiting to cash in their giros). Ian Brazier was punished this year for forgetting to pay his entry fee, and picked one of the 5 pieces of string - which ended up being about 6 feet long. Did that mean anything?! Who the hell knew! But our fates had been sealed. With that, we were rather unceremoniously sent on our way out along the Thames Path, and were told that we would be intercepted somewhere along the way. And we were...
A bunch of stringers. Photo curtesy of Nici Griffin.

100 meters up the road we were pulled up short and bundled into a minibus. Now, I don't want to ruin their fun, but I totally called this! I was expecting plenty of psyche-outs and misinformation throughout, and this was the first of many. Basically I just thought "what would I do to fuck their minds"? As with last year, I had tried to make sure I was ahead just in case that was the end, but as I bundled into the back of the bus like a naughty school kid I realised that I was now technically in last place.

So off we went, with minibus driver Dave Merrett teasing us with our suspected destination. To be honest, I'm not sure if even he knew where we were headed as we shot down lots of little country lanes! I was half expecting to go in a large circle and end up back where we started agin, but we definitely seemed to be heading further and further from Streatley. Eventually we hopped on the M4 and it looked as if our final stop was going to be either Wales or Swindon. "Please Wales... please Wales...", was the general consensus!
I spy with my little eye, something beginning with H. It was Hokas in case you were wondering. Fun times.
As it happens, both were wrong and we instead rocked up in Bath. Bath is very pretty. Pretty fucking far away from Streatley! But only 5 minutes away from Richard Cranswick's house which I think was a bit of a surprise to him. If it was me, I may have considered buggering off home, but of course he now had the home advantage.

We were probably all thinking the same thing now, "I guess we'll be running back to Streatley". I was trying not to worry too much about distances, or where we might be headed. But I did find myself trying to get into the head of James Adams - if I was an utter bastard, what would I do to these poor defenceless runners?

Simply having us run back to Streatley would be too obvious, so I expected one of two things to happen:
  1. We would be pulled up short of Streatley (maybe even when we got really close) and sent off somewhere completely different (possibly by minibus again, although the logistics of this when everyone was spread out would be difficult).

  2. Streatley wouldn't be the end. I thought that the cruellest thing to do would be to try and make people drop out around this point by having them think they were done only to be given more. But the really cruel way would be if the finish was not too far away. So I figured there would be a long section which people would hope would be the last one, then another long one but where people would be pulled up short in an hilarious way similar to the start.
Trying to get into James Adams' head is a dangerous game to play, and this is exactly what he wanted people to do! Dammit. I've played right into his hands! Although as it happens I was pretty much right on the money. Either way, I was in it for the long haul and had told myself to treat Streatley as at least the halfway point.
Taking in the route. I'm like a navigating machine.
Anyway, off we went along the Bath and Avon cycle path (yay... pavement...) until we were intercepted and sent down towards the river. "Follow the river, cross over the bridge, then turn left to carry on along the river" is what I was told. So I headed along to the bridge, ran across, and kept my eyes open on the left for the turning to get back on the river.

Hmm. There wasn't one. Okay, maybe it's a bit further? Nope. Oh hang on, I remember a turning when we ran along here earlier. Maybe that's it? Oh, it's a lot further than I remember...

In the end I decided to wait for the others who we're coming along to see what they thought. Tim thought we should just carry on going to miss out the section along the river and rejoin the route further ahead, but I don't like missing sections out - especially as I wasn't sure if we would miss another interception. In the end we stopped a nice elderly couple who informed us that the turning was just as you come off the bridge (where I had expected it to be) but on the right hand side (...not where I had expected it to be). Sigh.

Back we went and got back on track (now in the back of the pack). I was running with Terrence Zengerink and caught up with Dave Baker as we eventually came back off the river path and back onto the cycle path. As we came back onto the cycle path, we saw Chris Edmonds and Kate Hayden who I think had missed the turning after the bridge but carried on going. We ran together for a while, with them enjoying the fact that they were beating me - even going so far as to ask for a picture of the momentous occasion! Alright, alright, rub it in...
Ian seals our fate.
We all ran together for a while until I decided to look at the map (which I hadn't done in a while). "Erm. Guys? We're on the wrong side of the river." We shouldn't have turned off quite so quickly and should have gone up past the pub. Again, we could have just carried on going and eventually gotten back on track, but I made everybody head back the right way. Tim Landon had already legged it though, so I sprinted after him to chase him down, which was probably the most knackering part of the whole race. He's one speedy guy!

Back on track again, I had probably added a good 5 miles onto my journey (to be fair, so had a lot of other runners). Considering we should have only done about 20 miles by this point, this was pretty good going. Maybe I'll run with the map in my hand from now on...

I finally made it into Bath, where an exasperated Nici Griffin was wondering what the hell had happened to me. It had given some of the other guys quite a shock to learn that they were in the lead as about 5 of the front runners had gone the wrong way. We were now told that we would be running along the Kennet and Avon Canal, heading towards the Thames at Reading. But would we be redirected before we got there?

By this point I noticed that my legs were aching for more than they really should. I put this down to my lack of long distance running this year, since for the past few months I have hardly done any running more than 15-20 miles. A combination of a knee injury for much of the summer, together with struggling with sleep with our little girl, meant that I had not really been able to get many longer weekend runs in. I decided to play the long game and just stay comfortable, so put all thoughts of catching people up out of my mind. It's all very well running fast, but if you can't make the end it means nothing. So I relaxed into my pace, chilled out at the aid stations, and just listened to my audiobook - The Shining by Stephen King. Perfect for night time running!

I came into the next aid station where James and Dave had the minibus and our drop bags. I grabbed a chocolate bar and had a little sit down while I munched. Terrence and Tim caught up and overtook me, but I wasn't too concerned. I headed over to where Lee Briggs and Andrew Jordan were taking the times down, and suddenly remembered that I had stolen a whole bunch of clothes off Lee when I dropped out of the North Downs Way. Oddly he didn't seem too concerned about getting a bunch of old clothes back off the sweaty runner at that moment in time...

We carried on, and I caught up with Terrence and Tim a few times along the route. I seemed to be moving a little faster than them in general, but found myself taking longer at the crossing points, as I was paranoid of ending up on the wrong side of the river and having to double back. Tim caught up with me while I was um-ing and ah-ing, and that was the last I saw of him for the rest of the race. He had found a hell of a rhythm, and soon opened up a gap on the rest of the field. Meanwhile Terrence and I found ourselves leap-frogging each other for much of the next section. 

As we came through Devizes, It was starting to get dark and I was struggling to find my footing, so I stopped to stick on my head torch. Nici was waiting at the next aid station at the top of the locks, and was very motherly - making sure that I was warm enough in just my shorts, that I had a backup light, that I had enough food, that I would remember to call. Jeez mum, you're sooooooo embarrassing! I headed off after a cup of tea, and set off into the town. There was some kind of festival going on with people carrying large paper lanterns and giant paper donkeys (pretty sure that wasn't a hallucination...), which was very pretty and a little surreal. I was a bit worried that I would have to fight through some people, but they all seemed to be on the other side of the river. 

Nici's directions had been stuck in my brain, "Cross over at Bridge 122, then cross back over at Bridge 115, then head to the Swan pub". Bridge 122. Bridge 115. Bridge 122. Bridge 115. Counting fucking bridges for 3 hours is not my idea of a good time, I can tell you. If you're trying to avoid worrying too much about distances, and trying to "just run", I recommend not counting fucking bridges. Still, it was good practice for the Grand Union Canal Race next year I guess. I came into the next checkpoint at the Swan Inn to find Lee, Andrew, Dave and James Elson, along with my drop bag. I took a seat and had a nice cup of tea to warm up. Shorts and long sleeved shirt was perfect for running, but definitely got a little chilly when I stopped! Terrence came in, grabbed a few bits, then promptly disappeared - straight into the pub. Damn. Why didn't I think of that?!

I said thanks and took my leave. There were a few spots of rain coming so I put my Montane Minimus jacket on, but it never came to anything. Still, with the temperature dropping another layer was probably a good plan. As I headed away from the pub, I heard a shout. I turned to see a headlamp back at the pub but couldn't hear what they were shouting. Had I forgotten something? Gone the wrong way? I headed back to find out what was going on. "It's me!", said the indistinct shadow with the head torch shining in my face. "Paul!" Ohhh! It was Paul Ali, head of Ultra Tales eMagazine, who was helping out and just wanted to say good luck! It was great to see him, and now the spots of rain started to make sense! Paul seems to have this effect on the weather you see. It's his lucky hat I think. Every time he wears it (last year's Winter 100 and this year's Thames Path 100 being particularly good examples), the weather Gods react violently, sending everything they've got to try and make things more interesting. I was half expecting a plague of frogs to hit, but luckily the hat seemed to be conspicuously absent. Phew!
Sunrise on another beautiful string filled day.
The actual running sections were all much of a muchness now. Run along the canal looking for the right bridge to cross, then repeat ad infinitum/nauseum. I wasn't too fussed by the monotony as I had the terror of expecting Jack Nicholson to jump out from behind a bush with an axe to keep me entertained, but it was nice to meet up with people at the checkpoints every 12-15 miles or so. Next up were Jany and Rob who had rescued me at last year's Piece of String, when I was having trouble moving through the quagmire. It was nice to catch up in slightly more pleasant conditions! Terrence and Ben Hall weren't too far behind, and I headed back off again onto the canal path towards Reading.

I managed to negotiate the marina at Newbury without too much of an issue, and managed to avoid getting into any issues with any of the revellers still stumbling out of the late night venues. I think they were probably a little too bemused to say anything anyway. The next checkpoint seemed to take an age to arrive, and as Terrence caught up with me we both commented on the fact that we must have already done almost the promised 15 miles, yet there was still no sign of life. He had a Garmin on, so we knew it must be true - those things never lie. I was a little worried about whether or not I had enough water to last me, and wasn't sure whether I would have to start rationing just in case. When I got to Thatcham train station, I decided to give James a call just to make sure that I hadn't missed them (a genuine concern through much of the race). He assured me that there were just a few more miles to go.

Miles? MILES?!

Eventually I found James and Dave with the minibus and our drop bags, and I was very pleased to be able to have a bit of a sit down. It was a pretty open space and there was a cold wind blowing, so rather than get too cold I decided to go and sit in the van with my cup of tea to get myself sorted. It was lovely and warm in there, so I figured that I would take the opportunity to rest up for a bit, and asked Dave to poke me in half an hour. Which he did. Luckily he has a snooze function, and I got another 15 minutes of being lazy in before I finally headed back out again. Just as I was getting out of the van, Rich, Tom Forman and Steve McCalister arrived looking in very good spirits. I said hi, then headed back out into the fray, anxious to get moving again to warm back up.

The next section was another long one, but the sun soon began to rise, bringing a renewed sense of vigour with it. I was quite behind Ben and Trevor now, having been lazy at the last aid station, and I found myself having to walk a lot more than I would usually. Maybe I was just being a wimp, but I at least consoled myself that there was no use destroying myself as I might still have a lot further to go.

As I came into Reading, confusing the hell out of the early morning punters, I passed a McDonalds and couldn't resist. Acutely aware of the stench emanating off of my person (and not particularly caring), I ordered a double sausage McMuffin meal - and it was gooooooddddd! The first real food (for some value of "real" at least) I had eaten since breakfast the day before. Well fuelled and raring to go, I headed off to find the next checkpoint.
Breakfast of champions.
Jany and Gemma Greenwood were waiting just before the canal reached the River Thames, and were guffawing away at a little incident involving Gemma trying her hardest to maintain a straighht-faced conversation with a Police Officer while Jany had a cheeky wee behind the car. Fun times! I thought Streatley was about 30 miles away from Reading, but apparently it was a lot closer. Score! So off I went along the Thames Path, which I have run several times before so was at least happy that I wasn't going to go wrong anywhere. This section was pretty uneventful, except that I was definitely starting to feel it now.

As I pulled off the path into Streatley, I passed Drew Sheffield and Claire Shelley on the bridge. Some of the runners were already about to head out on the second section of the Winter 100 (which had started at 10am), with Ed Catmur leading the way with a 2:50 on the first 25 mile section. Yikes! That boy can seriously hoof it. Expect to see big(ger) things in the future from him. As I came into the Morrel Rooms in Streatley (the Race HQ for the Winter 100), I got a little round of applause from the volunteers. I grabbed a seat and was told by James Elson, "You know this isn't the end, right?". Of course I did! But apparently this information had shocked some of the others. As if they would be kind enough to have the finish in such an obvious place. I took a little bit of time to pull myself together, having already done about 110 miles. I was feeling okay, although my knee had a bit of a twinge. I had mentioned to Drew and Claire that I hadn't quite decided whether I was going to carry on or not, but I had no legitimate reason to drop other than being a pussy. I was just getting into my new book anyway (Dr. Sleep, the sequel to The Shining) so sucked it up and got back out there.

The next section was a lot more fun, as we headed out along the Ridgeway on the same spur as the Winter 100 runners. This was familiar territory now after last year, and was much more interesting than running along a canal. My speed wasn't quite what it once was, so I was passed every so often by somebody running the Winter 100. Many of them would stop to check I was okay as my running was a little laboured by this point, and they thought that I was struggling after the first section of the race rather than having already done longer than they would do in total. My ability to articulate that I was all good, happy to be out and about, and for them to have a great race was gradually waning, but I managed to have a chat with several people along the way. I came into the W100 Aid Station at North Stoke, where I found Simon Edwards and Liz Grec helping out. I stopped for a bit of a chat and a cuppa, then headed back out the door. James Elson and Paul Navesy where outside, and I confess that I thought for one brief moment that this was the end - right outside the Aid Station. But alas, no. Fine, I was enjoying the route anyway so headed off, aiming to get to the Swyncombe Aid Station before dark.

The route became a lot more challenging here, or at least it was after 115 miles of running, and I found myself tripping a few times on the rutted course. I think that I must have tweaked my knee on a root, because all of a sudden I was aware that I wasn't really able to run properly. I slowed right down, acutely aware of the injury that I suffered earlier this year. Hmm. I pushed on a bit, and just got chatting to several people including Paul Corderoy (who is hard to miss with his rather amazing beard), and a guy named Chris who was running his first 100 miler (and seemed to be enjoying himself). I gave him a bit of encouragement, "I guarantee that you'll feel like shit later...", and quickly thought to follow it up with, "...erm, but you'll come out the other side and feel great again later!" Hopefully I didn't put him off too much.

The path took a steep turn upwards, and now I was really struggling. I had a definite limp on now, and my running had stopped completely. I turned to see Chris, Tom and Steve coming up behind me, laughing away and having a whale of a time. I was quite happy in myself and joined them for a bit of hiking, but realised that my race was over. I didn't want to damage my knee like I had at Transvulcania, so I was going to get to the next checkpoint and stop. Well, actually, I was going to get to the next checkpoint, then run about 200 meters of the next section just in case my initial prediction panned out, and then stop.

Unfortunately, I was so slow, that it quickly became clear that I was never going to make the cutoff that had been set. I crossed the road after heading through Huntercombe Golf Club and realised that it was getting dark. I stopped to put my head lamp on, and then called James to let him know that I was going to miss the cutoff. I had planned to walk there, but it was still another couple of miles and getting colder. I wasn't able to run to get my body temperature up, so in the end I decided that - as I wouldn't make the cutoff anyway - I would just drop here. Dave came in the minibus to pick me up, and we headed back to Streatley.

And that was it. It wasn't an epic fail, and it wasn't a glorious repeat of last year. It was just a kind of "oh well" situation. I'm disappointed that I had to pull out, but there's no doubt that I had to pull out. I don't go in for this Death or Glory bollocks. I honestly don't care enough to destroy myself unduly.  I'd rather be able to run again the next week. There are probably certain situations where I would risk an injury just to finish, but since I didn't even know where the finish was here, that wasn't going to happen.

A friend wrote on my Facebook wall that "if it doesn't hurt then you're doing it wrong". What's interesting is that my opinion is quite the opposite. Frankly I think that running, even stupid distances like this, shouldn't hurt. Well not in that way anyway. I mean of course you should feel your muscles screaming at you because you're giving it everything that you've got. But it shouldn't hurt. If you're getting injuries, tweaks and niggles, then chances are that you're doing something wrong that you might want to try and correct. I'm happy with my running style now, and generally find that it results in few injuries (the Transvulcania one was mostly due to falling on a rock rather than overuse). After the 147 mile Viking Way, I was back training normally (albeit more slowly) that same week. I put this down to having found a good running form, and a good combination of shoes and socks that work well for me.
Lottie cheering me on from home. Squee! Adorbz.
So yeah, there we go. I pulled out after 120 miles of the second Piece of String race, and headed back to see what would happen next. At this point there were 5 more people left in the race - Terrence, Ben, Chris, Tom and Steve. Unfortunately Chris, Tom and Steve dropped out a little further ahead than me as they became lost on the next section and were never going to make the cutoff. A valiant effort nonetheless (for Rich, this was more than twice as far as he had ever run, and Tom had a broken foot 8 weeks ago). But Terrence and Ben both found the elusive end of the Piece of String. Another year with 2 finishers - people are going to think it's a fix... The rest of the race had played out almost exactly how I had called it. They had made it to Swyncombe, and from there had run another ~15 mile section. From there, they were told to run right to the end of the Ridgeway (some distance away) - only to be pulled up short after 100 meters to be told that they had finished. Luckily neither of them pulled out at that point, which would have sucked. I was only about 15 miles from the end, but at least I know that it wouldn't have been doable in my condition. 

Despite the fact that only 2 people finished again, and the distance (or at least the running time) was very similar, this year's event was very different to last year. The weather was a huge factor in the attrition rate from last time, and many people dropped quite early due to the miserable conditions. This year, the weather was absolutely gorgeous, and we very nearly had 6 finishers (half the starting field). It was a little chilly, but there were clear blue skies throughout much of the day(s) with no rain at all. We can thank Paul Ali for that.

One huge difference was the amount of kit that I used. Last year I had to change clothes quite frequently to avoid dying from hypothermia. This year, I wore shorts and a t shirt with a thin base layer for the whole event. I had a giant drop bag full of various extra waterproofs, changes of clothes, spare shoes, etc. I probably took about 8 gels, 2 chocolate bars, and a spare head torch from it. Very different.

So I guess that the big question is - would I do it again? Honestly, yes I would. I have to say that, despite the fact that the weather was horrendous last year, I actually enjoyed it more. This year it felt harder than it should have, largely down to my fitness. But I can do something about that. Generally I had fun out there though, and think I kept a smile on my face most of the time. I moaned of course, but hopefully it wasn't too whingey. No whingers allowed after all. I'm just disappointed that I didn't make it to the end, where I would have gotten the greatest prize of all - a hug from the lemur-bearded James Adams. It isn't pointless after all.

As usual, a huge thank you to everybody that gave up their time to help a group of idiots attempt to fulfil a madman's idea of a good day out. We couldn't have done it without you! Well alright, we didn't actual do it with you, but you know what I mean...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.