The 2010 Odyssey from our Long Distance Specialist
An excellent year for injuries: ribs in January, left calf and right knee through the summer: kept the economy going, paying my physio. I missed the start of the cross-country season. The Club 7 in early November was about as far as I’d run all year - no distance training at all. After it I limped slowly away - three weeks to the Gatliff.
But how much training should you do? The ‘Bob McDonough syndrome’ is a warning against training too much – reaching a peak then injuries just before races. The safe level is obviously none at all. On that basis I had prepared in the best way possible.
The weather offered its usual support. By mid-November: bitter cold, rain, wind; and well below zero for days before the Gatliff. I expected the ground to be frozen and the weather extremely inhospitable. They were. A test run the night before showed my kit as not warm enough: add another layer. The gear I started in may sound extreme: five body layers plus scarf, two leg layers plus calf and knee bandages, two hats, three pairs of gloves. And some came off at times, but basically it was about right.
So why, a couple of days before the event did I suddenly begin to feel very - and unusually - optimistic? I told Mark; he remarked on the dangers of excessive optimism.
The start was back at Edenbridge rugby club: great to park actually at the start and dash indoors without getting too cold: a real hard man. Then, with completed form in hand, forward to the reception desk to check in and pay. Tim Styles was there taking money, giving numbers. I said my name and gave him the form. He started visibly. ‘Oh.’ Pause. ‘We were wondering if you would come’. Dumb incomprehension on my part: at his reaction and at being looked for. How was I “expected”? Who were “we”? ‘Have you done ten?’ ‘No’. Brief confusion: ‘or twenty?’ Me: ‘possibly - I tend to lose count.’ Plainly I do – I thought this was number 19. As part of my institutionalised pre-event worrying, I had been thinking I would have to do this year’s and another one, some time in the distant, aching, future, to get to twenty; and how daunting two more felt like. Tim: ‘I was going through the previous year’s entrants beforehand and noted you; I think you’ll have done twenty this year. We wondered if you’d come. We were going to bring some special forms for people who’ve done twenty and we haven’t got any here today.’ It was all a bit surreal – not least the open assumption that – of course I would finish something this difficult - incongruous against my deep doubts of previous weeks. Still, this was your actual personal service – not like any old race.
Chatting before the start with Dick Ockenden: ‘this year is the 2007 route exactly (basically a southerly clockwise loop) except CP5 had been moved a bit: CP5 is always a problem – all three events go through it and it has to be open longest’. But I missed 2007.
I try to start as early as possible; as usual, alone: 07.12 a.m. I was surprised how light it was. I could have started earlier. The sky was clear, but the main reason was that all the ground was white. We had had no snow but repeated nights and days well below zero, had left all grassy surfaces covered by thick hoar frost. It was beautiful; and remained beautiful all day wherever there was grass. The temperature at the start was minus 5 degrees according to car thermometers and it stayed well below zero all day.
I wore one water bottle only – usually enough fluid is available at CPs so bottles are just excess weight even if half empty. The one I wore was filled only about a third - as a safety reserve. During the event I swapped it from shoulder to shoulder as it seemed to offer the shoulder it was on some insulation from the bitter cold.
Less than four paragraphs in, I lost my place in the instructions and asked a stranger. His reply: ‘25 events, you must know all the routes by heart!’ Err, no actually. A little later, for no reason, another stranger said virtually the same thing. It was odd. Who was pointing me out (and getting it wrong)?
Smooth ground is usually no bother; but now, frozen, it was dangerously slippery - I was always slipping early on, stumbling, knowing my performance dangerous. Later on, with more roads, and dirt and sandy tracks, it was easier. Cattle wallows around gates and in gaps between fields are usually thick muddy sludge; this year, all rock-hard ankle- breakers. No give at all – deep frozen; every unbalanced step on them a threat.
Falling over is nearly always odd. A brief moment when you realize your feet have failed in their statutory duty to get a grip. The next thing you register – immediately as it seems - is the impact when you hit the ground. In this case with my chest again – this year the left side. Straight into a forward role, up immediately and jogging forward again – don’t make too much of something that demonstrates incompetence in the basic business of remaining vertical. A quick look down: completely clean - no scratches, no mud, no sign of impact at all in fact – the opposite of a usual Gatliff fall. But this one was like hitting concrete. An observer commented on my fast down and up: ‘a very professional roll - you all right?’ ‘Yes.’ Chest pain not as bad as last year’s first fall, after which every intake of breath was greeted by a stab, so probably just a bruise; but tender for a month.
The first CP was reached after an hour and a half - 10k - quite fast. I thought ‘this is seven and a half hour pace - but obviously I’ll slow down’. A trestle table, standing in the open, covered with plastic cups. Each cup had a little orange or red concentrate in the bottom. ‘We’ve no water; it was frozen; we’ve had to send back to the rugby club for more’. It looked ridiculous. I felt for them, drank from my reserve and on my way.
The other CPs had drinks. But at CP2 was only very cold water; I didn’t take much so the third CP - lunch - for me consisted mainly of drinking lots of cups of tea. With one thing and another I didn’t try to drink again from my bottle for maybe six hours. When I did try, the retractable spout was stuck and the body of the bottle crunched. Iced up; frozen. I bashed it and got a little fluid, but iced water slurry is not what you want.
Going along a disused railway line, a chap appeared who had just fallen on his head coming down from a style. He had a crowd around him; shaken, looked bad. Afterwards Dick said the chap had gone to hospital. Dick went on to maintain the Gatliff has never had a death ‘except for the three rumoured from the first year when over half failed to finish, and which we always stoutly denied’.
From CP4 to CP5, nearly two hours, I was entirely alone. No-one at all passed me and I passed no-one. I could see no-one ahead and no-one behind; and at times I had long views over hills and fields in each direction. It became more and more unnerving. I saw no-one else at all, on the event or otherwise, for what seemed like hours. Endless unsupported route-finding and worry about being way off-route became debilitating.
I got lost twice; neither too bad but each wasted five minutes or so - significant as it turned out. If only I had done 2007 I might have known the route.
First time was after CP1 when we were still fairly crowded. I was trying to stay with a couple of girls with a dog, as their pace seemed suitable. They got out of view in a wood while I was route-checking and I lost them. Three enthusiastic young lads wearing reflective clothing had passed and re-passed. They had been lost before; the only people in sight. They said: ‘here is the left turn indicator’. It wasn’t clear but it rarely is in woods and it seemed reasonable so we took it. After a few minutes dodging around bushes and fallen trees, they were well ahead and doubts grew – no track and where was the valley we should have been descending into? - only rising ground through dense trees and scrub ahead. I stopped; re-read the instructions, turned back, uncertain – no-one was following. It took a while to find the way back – no track, fallen trees, scrub - no surprise.
The second time was in the middle of my ‘hours alone’. I wanted help to make sense of where I was, but though I waited no-one appeared. I began a steep descent over bricks and down into undergrowth, but recognised one of my stupid decisions and turned back. The hoar frost showed no sign of runners so I doubted that anyone had gone that way. After a while I decided the descent was 90 degrees to the right of where I‘d thought it was and took it. But I continued to see no-one at all.
After this, while still alone, Mr Helpful approached; in a car; obviously going to stop. Was I was trespassing on private land? Quite possibly. But no; he helpfully told me I was lost. He was quite sure. No, he had seen no-one on this route; but if I turned left at a path at the top of the next hill I would find a group walking west. Mr Helpful went on; hoping he would actually say something helpful - and as he was the only person I’d seen for hours - I let him. But nothing useful emerged. Though uncertain of the route – where was everybody? - the instructions fairly well matched features on the ground even though I appeared to be the only person following them. I certainly wasn’t going to take a path not in the instructions and wander round the south of England, looking for a group who would have moved on and were probably nothing to do with my event. Anyway, now I wanted to be mainly heading north. A glance at the route-map before the start had showed it going mainly south for the first half, west for a few miles, then mainly north. Lots of jiggling around certainly, but by this time of day I wanted the sun at my back usually, not on my left shoulder. Still, I wished I’d asked him if there was a road 700 yards further on as the instructions said. No sign of it for ages. Then over the top of the hill there it was.
The section after the road made clear sense for a few lines but then just didn’t. I consulted my assistant - fresh-air - and we decided we had no idea why it didn’t make sense but we weren’t going back to check – we were too tired - and if we just kept following the obvious track, roughly north - it might make sense again soon. It didn’t. But if I’d gone off-route I reckoned I was too far west not east, so I turned right - as the instructions said - and trotted along a pleasant, narrow, empty lane with newly fenced fields on both sides, wondering how far away the next CP, or indeed any human being, was. The CP was due, at a saw-mill apparently, but no sign - only a too-small wood in the distance. And I didn’t feel like getting lost again – I was now well-knackered. Then unexpectedly, in the trees, there it was. Amazing! From despondency to success – no longer lost and I’d broken the back of the event – only 6 km to go. And still early!
For the last third of the event the cramp in my upper legs was the worst I could recall. The knee bandage did not help. I was so exhausted in the last couple of miles people were passing me for fun – no energy to compete. I wanted the event to end badly, thinking ‘if it doesn’t end soon I don’t know what I’m going to do with this cramp’. But I also thought ‘its odd’ - even at the time - because I was a lot earlier, faster, than usual. I had been getting to checkpoints quicker throughout the event. Maybe exhaustion is nothing to do with speed - just 50 km is my lot now. Or maybe this year’s route is more an actual 50 km and less the usual country 50 km.
At the start I thought I could jog forever. By the end I could hardly run for 100 yards without a walking break. No training at all might avoid the Bob McDonough syndrome but it looks like a sub-optimal approach.
Near the end, after all the ice, a small flowing steam in dense undergrowth served to cover feet in obligatory mud. It was a shame because at the finish you have to take muddy shoes off before going into the club-house. And I couldn’t get mine off for love nor money – stuck outside with frozen hands and muddy shoes, unable to finish!
Afterwards I was talking to Don Newman; he actually has done 25. Nice to meet him at last – fairly young; he had an epiphany in a pub with some friends and has been doing it ever since. He said his water line (platypus) froze and he was trying to thaw it in tea at the lunch stop. The showers at the finish were also icy cold and we decided we’d had enough of that, so a wipe down and just put clean gear on.
Another completed; and in a remarkable time: 8 hours 10 minutes. As I left the club-house, following an unusually large amount of post-event socialising with Dick and Tim, the usual call – ‘see you next year’. ‘Yes’: nice to be positive – they put so much into organising it. Still, remarkable time or not they have to end eventually, as I was afraid before starting. But Tim was right - 20 done. No special form though. A landmark. Easy.