Thursday 6 November 2014

Piece of String a Race Report 2014 - No strings on me!

I've got no strings
To hold me down
To make me fret, or make me frown
I had strings
But now I'm free
There are no strings on me

The Piece of String Fun Run is a singular race, with a simple premise - nobody knows how far it is until they finish (possibly including the organisers). It is, to assign the required superlative necessary for any ultra race, the Most Pointless Race in the World (TM). It began 2 years ago as the fevered dream of James Adams, with a little help from James Elson who is a little more au fait with the logistical management skills necessary to arrange such an event. Now in its third incarnation, it has become something of an institution (albeit a stupid one) in the UK race calendar.

Pretty much sums up this race.
The first year's race was a lot of fun, despite being in just about the worst conditions I have ever run in. 120 miles (and about 36 hours) later and I was one of only 2 finishers of the inaugural race. The second year's race was much nicer in terms of conditions, but the ante was raised with a trip to the other side of the country thrown in to keep people guessing about where and how far we would be running. An injury at about 120 miles meant I had to stop - as it turns out only 10 miles from the finish. But what would they throw at us this year?!

As the race approached, I was in two minds whether or not to turn up. My ankle was still a little tender from twisting it before Spartathlon, so I felt I should probably wait until this was back to normal before doing too much. In addition, I was due to head away on a conference the following week, so felt bad at having to miss out on spending time with my wife and little girl (especially having buggered off for a week to Greece the previous month). Plus we have just bought a new house, so there's a lot of jobs that need doing prior to our move. I had pretty much made up my mind that I wasn't going to start, but with a day to go until the race I suddenly changed my mind - much to my wife's annoyance.

However, in a 'having my cake and eating it' kind of situation (whatever the hell that means), I decided that I could keep everybody happy (ish) if I raced on the Saturday and spent time with my family and did my jobs on Sunday. This meant that I would still get to take part in the event (making me a 100% PoS starter) - but it was unlikely that I would make the finish.

I guess it was lucky that we were due a short one this year...

On Friday night I headed straight from work to the Like The Wind pop up event in London to see some fantastic talks on what running means to people like Robbie Britton, Wanda Summers, Steve Way, and Peter McHugh De Clare and British Olympic bronze medal marathon runner Charlie Spedding. It was a great event, full of inspirational discussions and some really interesting food for thought. Although the main take-home message seemed to be "runners these days are crap" from Peter...

I arrived late due to the joys of public transport (it was much easier when I ran it) and left early with James Adams to head back to his place where I was staying pre-race. Unfortunately my attempts at ransacking the house to get some insider knowledge proved fruitless. Although searching through his internet search history has given me plenty of ammunition for the future.

I had a great night's sleep, and woke up to a beautiful day - which was a pleasant surprise. By the time we got to Wendover Memorial Hall it was positively glorious - shorts and T-shirts all the way! Well for most of us at least. Rich Cranswick was determined that he was going to run in full chicken costume. Because why not?!

The race started with the usual lack of ceremony, and we were on our way West on the Ridgeway. 

"That's left, right?"

Straight on?
We set off with stalwart Centurion supporter Claire Shelley showing us the way. Just to keep things fun, I started to race her, not expecting her to bite. But bite she did, until I pointed out that we had left everybody else behind and she remembered she wasn't actually racing. Not that I'm competitive of course.

We ran along the Ridgeway, and everybody was in great spirits. It was a fantastic day, and we had nothing to worry about except running. As we approached the monument on top of Coombe Hill, we met Nici Griffin who would be our torturer for the next section of the race. We were sent down a leaf-strewn gulley towards the road at the bottom of the hill, then straight back up a very muddy incline back to the monument.

What a lovely monument this is!

And repeat.

Hello again old friend.
And again.

Fancy seeing you here.
And, well, you get the idea.

I'm sure this will be the last one.
Although occasionally we went in the opposite direction.

The big question here is, "What the hell are you doing in third place you loser?!"
After about 10 reps, we were suitably warmed up and were sent back to the hall in Wendover. After making a slight error at the high street (not my fault I must stress, I was the one calling others back which makes a change!), we got back to our drop bags. After a quick snack, we were sent back out with the same brief as previously - head West on the Ridgeway until we tell you otherwise. 

"That's still left, right?"
Can't believe I got chicked...
This section was a lot of fun, as I ran in a small group with Bryan Robb and David Pryce. It was a lovely day and we were basically just out for an afternoon jolly. I don't often run with other people, but it was good to just chat and enjoy the day. It also didn't hurt that David knew the way, although to be honest the Ridgeway is a really well sign posted route anyway so I think that even I would have been alright.

I half expected to be heading to over to Streatley, where the first two PoS races were centered, but we were intercepted by Claire and Nick Greene and sent off along a bridleway with the simple brief to run until something happened. At the bottom of the hill, we found James and Nici and a mini checkpoint - handy as I was in desperate need of a water refill.

I'm not sure you're taking this seriously Sam! Photo C/O Nici Griffin
Our next instruction? "Back the way you came". Okie dokie! I grabbed a handful of food to graze on and munched on some nuts (*snigger*) while Bryan and David headed off ahead. I started running back from whence we had come. I was given strict instructions not to spoil it for the others as I passed them on the way back, but I guess it was pretty obvious. Rich had since lost the chicken suit, having lost half his body weight through sweating. That suit must have smelled lovely - a real secret blend of herbs and spices. Just don't ask about the state of his nuggets.

I had picked up from Nici that there was some kind of Trick or Treat to come that was being voted for by people on Twitter. "You really don't have many friends" didn't entirely fill me with confidence... This year's race seemed to be very similar to the format of the first year, with each new section centred in one location, but there was also a real emphasis on audience participation. God knew what I was in for, but my guess was that we would be stopped at the monument on Coombe Hill for another series of hill reps. Knowing what my "friends" are like (seriously, you guys suck) I mentally prepared myself for the worst.

It was great running on my own as the sun went down, and I found myself really enjoying my surroundings. Usually I like to listen to an audiobook as I run, but today I was quite happy with the sounds of nature. I have a habit of not living in the moment, so I made myself turn around and sit down for a few minutes to watch as the sun began to disappear behind the hill I had just come from. It was a lovely experience, and I was a little sad thinking that I was going to have to cut things short now. My plan was to stop at the next main bag drop, as if I left it any later I wouldn't be able to make it home on the train. However, if there were a few little hill reps before then it would be rude not to do them...

A perfect sunset to end a lovely day.
I caught up with Bryan and David about halfway back, and we chatted about what to expect next. My thoughts were that, since it had not been super short, it would instead probably be super long and possibly even unfinishable. Not that I wanted to scare them of course...

As we approached the monument at Coombe Hill, it became clear that there was nobody there. I guess it was straight back to the hall then! The sun had gone down now, so it would be head torches from here on out.

So where to next?
But not for me. We came into the hall and received our next directions - a little jaunt along the Grand Union Canal. It would have been nice to head back along a route that I knew quite well from running there in May, but I had to go. "I wasn't lying when I said I had made plans!" It felt a bit crap and everybody was very surprised, but it was the right call. With so many trips away, including a conference in Rome the following week, I had to prioritise time with my family. I had been a bit selfish going for the one day already, but at least it meant that I got the chance to take part in another fantastic event. And my 100% start rate is intact. Although I really should do something about my finish rate... 

It's fine, because next year will only be 10K. 

I was lucky enough to even get a lift home from Debbie, who had unfortunately dropped after getting a bit lost. So in the end I was indeed home for tea, and even got the chance to see my daughter and put her to bed. Perfect timing!

As it happens, the race was quite short in the end, with 6 finishers by midnight. It was a shame to miss out on the night time fun of Trick or Treat loops, including the now infamous "Hoka Hill" (49% incline at one point), but having seen how many Trick loops I was due to get I kind of feel like I won this year's Piece of String.

Fuck you all very much... Phot C/O Nikki Mills
So anyway, there we go. Not the greatest attempt ever (and I apologise to the organisers for half-arsing it), but I can honestly say that it was one of the most fun days of running that I have ever had (sorry again - I imagine "fun" wasn't really what they were going for...).

As ever, huge thanks to everybody that helped to make this day the awesome event that it was. The incredible part is that these guys were told nothing more than that they could be needed for anything from a few hours to a few days, and yet were still willing to come and help out! So thanks to James Adams, James Elson, Nici Griffin, Drew Sheffield, Claire Shelley, Nick Greene, Richard Stillion, Nikki Mills, Chris Mills and Louise Ayling. You guys rock!

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