More exploits from the North Downs - yet another treat from the pen of Geoff Reed
The Gatliff 2011
The weather forecast was mild and dry, with the underfoot firm; all unusual for a Gatliff. All I had to do now was stay on the route; usually more trouble than one would like - with instructions hardest to follow when you most need them; or, more likely get lost but still try to finish in the ten hour limit. Ah for the days when straying off-route was fun with time to recover. Even so I fancied this year would go smoothly, almost to the point of being boring. And so it turned out.
On the Saturday, Sunday was forecast to be 13 degrees, dry and sunny. This is 18 degrees warmer than last year’s Gatliff, on the same weekend. There may be something in this global warming lark.
Waiting for daylight, a familiar face gave its name as Mike and said: ‘I always see you on this event but not on anything else’. The reason was obvious – I don’t do any other ultras now. But instead of the obvious I said ‘What about the Dorset Doddle’ (30 miles along the coast; in summer too!). Naturally he said ‘I don’t do that’. So there we were. This year he was leading a young novice round – one Becky. Mike said he had gone to the trouble of counting the styles on the route of a year or two ago and found there were 110: a surprise. But later I thought: the event is 50 km long so that is only two per km. Most fields are entered over a style and left over a style and the route always goes through endless fields. 110 no longer seemed that many.
Starting in the cold at 7.10 a.m. I wore three top layers; and, as I couldn’t read the instructions in the half-light, reading glasses. All the large print - instructions for blind people - had gone: why? And for a while I was more often in sight of other people than usual. The 20k and 35k routes begin (and end) on the same tracks as the 50k; but it wasn’t the only reason.
The morning didn’t manage to follow its forecast - dull and a fine drizzle blurred the glasses. On went a cagoule and, in gently undulating pasture, I came up to couple of first-timers – mature chaps like me. They were ‘English mountaineers, trying this for a change’. As we trotted through wet meadows and along paths at field edges, they asked ‘is it all like this?’ I said ‘yes, just running around the rolling Kent countryside, not like your English mountains’. I might have added ‘it can get a bit bumpier, slippier and muddier than these fields, and the route-finding can be entertaining if you like that sort of thing’, but I forebore. The Gatliff is always different so explaining would take too long.
We went through an early wood together. It was soon clear that I knew better than they how to read the instructions; and what to expect in woods. When it came to making ‘which track’ decisions they had some learning to do. I led along past some turns I was confident weren’t meant by ‘turn left at junction’ and when I came to an open space decided this was the junction with confidence that surprised even me. No trace of a track, just a wide open space in each direction, deeply covered by beech leaves. I thought it might have been a track but for the leaves and so it proved. It should be this easy always.
The mountaineers were not as fast as me and I went ahead. Later it did become quite bumpy, which might have been good for them. But what with the frequent woods, the later mud, dense undergrowth, staircases, narrow root-filled crevasses and route-finding complexity, I thought they might have a job on trying to beat the ten hour limit. It is different from mountains. And it gets dark after less than ten hours too.
This year I was glad to find I returned to my old habit of not falling over on the event. This has a lot to recommend it and I shall give it suitable attention in future. Probably the relative lack of mud and my magisterially slow pace now are factors. The one I can readily influence, the other may be more difficult.
But falling was still easy if you wanted to, and there were people who gave it a go; I saw suitably muddy characters now and then, generally speed-merchants. And as I ran away from our two mountaineers, down a smooth slope at the side of an innocent looking ploughed field, I heard a cry; and one of them was down. They were, most likely and reasonably, trying to stay with me; I knew what I was doing and they didn’t. But after the fall I didn’t see them again.
After half an hour or so, the rain began as if it meant it. So the second cagoule went on – helpful as neither is actually waterproof. And the rain did mean it for an hour or so; which was reassuring. A Gatliff without a lot of water from somewhere - rain will do - would have been odd. So this felt like return to normality. When it ended I was suitably soaked and felt at home.
Thereafter we got the dry day forecast. Sometimes the sun shone - most un-typically; not necessarily warm but cheerful. Once, after maybe fifteen km, emerging from a wood into a broad field rising into the distance, with another wood behind it, I saw fourteen fellow-competitors scattered across the green sward in full sunshine; a beautiful and unusual sight. They stood out clearly, some up to half a mile away. When the route closed in I saw few of them again but it was a lovely moment. As later, alone, I found myself trotting along the edge of a wood with a bowl-shaped valley on the other side of the fence stretching ahead to my left, again illuminated by bright sunshine.
After 22 km, alone in a wood of young, close-packed Ash or Elder, visibility was the opposite of the sunny field, a few yards. It was easy to lose the way, on the ground and in the instructions, amongst left and right half turns on partly visible tracks the instructions said variously to ignore or take. And I did. Lose it that is. No idea whether to go right or left; and too many small tracks; none looking as if they were serious about having lots of people on them. So, with no-one visible and off-route, I ran a curving right-hand loop through the wood, ignorant of where it was leading. Something would turn up. Of course it did. A sign board for ‘Chaldons Farm’: on the instructions too.
The route brought lots more variation and entertainment. At a road crossing, the instructions said ‘go left and take a path opposite very soon’. So I went left, downhill, looking for this. Brian Russell shouted ‘the instructions are wrong – we should go right’, uphill. Well he has done nearly every Gatliff and there are route repeats. So, uphill; almost immediately there was the path, leading up to beautiful view of the Weald in clear air after the rain. Thanks Brian. Later came a section with instructions in bold: ‘BEWARE DROP ON L’. A good note: just not to be read while in motion. The path was horizontal, very narrow, well-rooted, fenced on the right and nothing between you and a long sheer drop on the left, for quite a distance. It is in attractive woods, and remote, which may be why the Health & Safety crowd haven’t found it yet. Then there was the over-generous supply of staircases this year. With the route zig-zagging up and down the North Downs, it was bound to have steep sections and staircases are a help. Even the one the instructions said had 116 steps. What to do when going up this? Count them of course. Later still came some lovely views across the Downs from high viewpoints.
Eventually I emerged at a familiar wide panorama: rolling green slopes descending steeply directly in front of me. In previous years we had to negotiate this descent carefully - down for 80m or so; then, equally slowly, contour through steep brush, gradually lose, then gain, height, as we traversed a steep decline heading for the approaching wood that contained the next climb. This year, a little luxury! When I came to this panorama we stayed on a higher path, delaying the slippery descent until later, avoiding the undulating slippery traverse and contouring only briefly before turning uphill again in the wood. Altogether as we negotiated the Downs, in a few places we seemed to be ‘marching up the hill’ just so we could then turn and go ‘marching down again’. And, when, in due course, I met the expert, it emerged that this was indeed the case.
Well into the event I saw a crowd ahead; at this stage this was unusual. Then I ran past the expert - as he was communing with a bush: Dick Ockenden. He caught up, complaining that the group he had been with had been a bit fast; whereas I’d thought they’d been following him.
We talked and Dick said he is nothing to do with organising the event now. It has been turned over to a new group of whom he was suitably disdainful. But his version of having nothing to do with the organisation ended up reminding me of a not dissimilar case at Kingston Poly. It emerged that Dick had created this year’s route. It also emerged that he was responsible for lots of (all?) the routes in the past. One year a bridge was washed away resulting in a dog-leg of an extra km or two but usually he said he works routes out to be very close to 50 km: hence this year’s switchbacks on the North Downs, for distance.
I said this year the event must disappoint – mild dry weather and limited mud – a Gatliff for softees. He said: ‘we’ll see; I’ve made it pretty bumpy later on.’ And he had.
Dick is slower than me and I did wonder about going ahead. But it was a change and he welcomed company – as I was leaving the last CP (42.5km) alone he broke off his conversation to leave with me. Anyway, lots of the route after we met was on steep slopes and staircases, which I was not going to run. So sticking with Dick wasn’t as slow as one might have expected. And did it make the later stages easy!
We came across Becky and Mike again at CP 4. Becky had had enough of hills and couldn’t manage any more. She put this to Dick. Dick was co-operative and promised there would be no more hills. So subsequently, whenever we found ourselves climbing, we decided it wasn’t a hill.
I kept reading the instructions – I had no idea when Dick might decide to stop and discuss with an organiser - he did quite a bit of en-route organising - or deal with an emergency and leave me to it. But being with him made clear the extent to which following instructions slows you down. I’d stop to figure out, and when I looked up he was gone.
This familiarity accounted for his always trotting along with complete confidence and a total lack of kit. No instructions naturally, unlike the rest of us; but not even drink or a back-pack in case; for him there was no ‘in case’; just a good weather-proof outfit. In previous years I’d thought his confidence came from being one of those who test routes to see if they work. But no, he creates them from scratch and the effort leads to this microscopic familiarity. Here I was, trotting along with the man! It has taken over 20 Gatliffs to find out the way to do them; but this was it. A lovely relaxed finish.
It emerged that the event had a record turnout this year – over 320 - with over 200 entries on the day. The checkpoints were running out of everything: not only instructions but drink and food as well. Yet amongst all these extra starters I kept up the record of being the first Kingston-Poly finisher.
The shower at the finish afterwards was warm for a change as well; a luxury obviously also due to the balmy weather.