Another epic journey
Gatliff 50 km Ultra-Marathon: 24 November 2013.
It seemed less serious this year: I cared less about doing it. But it would be disappointing not to try; even with growing awareness of how far it actually is. Departure was clock-work: up at 4.30; too casual if anything - left 10 minutes late (see 'didnt care'). But still at Edenbridge by 6.30 in the dark rugby club car-park.
Kit to carry is always simple (some obligatory): two cagoule tops (neither actually waterproof; this is not obligatory but then nor is one fully waterproof, just a good idea), bananas, OS map, head-torch, whistle, glasses, line map, entry card, compass. In a map case, blind person's instructions and the OS map that most of the route was on. Extracting the 'blind person's instructions' from the map case proved difficult, but with normal sized instructions I'd have glasses on for much of the event. How to see where I was going between reading the instructions? And what about a fall? Tricky. Blind person's instructions are better.
Grid-refs and CPs were on the OS map. Though in the event of a ''seriously lost I need to use the map'' type of emergency there would be no time to recover and finish in under ten hours. So why bother? To get back at all of course.
In the car were fresh clothes and wash kit for afterwards; and a book to hold the certificate flat: ah, optimism!
The route looked relatively easy: fewer hills and none as severe as the North Downs can be. And interesting - going a long way south and taking in Winnie-the-Poo's lovely 'hundred acre' wood.
And the weather looked benign: temperatures lowish at 5 degrees but not that low; and expected to be dry, following a dry week, so that earlier rain had some time to sink in.
As ever at the start, a lot of contestants started in tops that looked wind and rain-proof. I didnt. I wore four top layers to keep the cold out, but none wind or rain proof. Soon after starting I took one layer off as I went along – very awkward and a reminder to go into my rucksack as rarely as possible.
I gave the '7.a.m-start' walkers the usual chance to get clear before I set out 20 minutes later. This is all very well but by the end of the event it is always darkening, making route-finding more difficult. When making fast progress in the early morning – this year at Check-point one, 10 km in, before 9.00 a.m. - I cant imagine darkness falling with me not having finished. But as usual, it did.
The event is primarily 9 hrs of uncertainty about getting lost. When on an obvious section I was waiting for the next route-finding difficulty. I shouted people back onto the route a couple of times early on. Once, a pair 30 yeards ahead completely missed an obvious turn. Another time, on entering a grassy field, the instructions said 'keep on', clearly directing you to go ahead. But two people were wandering uncertainly off to the right, obviously no idea which way to go - the other side of the field was invisible over a rise. Even so the way seemed obvious, curious that it was not so to them. How would they would manage later on? Any Gatliff poses much more difficult route-finding challenges. Yet, as I now finish near the back, incompetent though they seemed, they would probably finish ahead of me.
Before CP1 I also got lost, twice briefly. Once in trees, the other time crossing a golf-course. Both times the instructions were complex. On the golf-course, unusually a lot of description covered a few yards only; more often a few words cover a long way. So I must have read part of it, moved on, beyond the next instruction and then got confused that the next part made no sense, because I had passed it (stuff about posts I couldnt see). Fortunately I got the general route right – 'cross a fairway', saw a 'grass-covered track' and took it. But, having skipped a section, was it the right track? As usual the instructions merely said 'continue', until 'another fairway'. That did not appear for ages - with no indication of how far to go. So all the time ascending, wondering 'am I going ever-further off-route with no idea how to get back to it?' I saw another person while crossing the first fairway, taking a different route off right. I didnt call him back because he might have been on the right route! Other times I had shouted people back, but this time I let him be. Getting lost in the trees was similar: out of sight of anyone and not knowing where I was; until a subsequent line of the instructions told me I was again on the route.
Later, going through an extended open wood of birch and bushes, the route said to pass three sign posts. I passed two but then missed one, gradually realising that I had done so when I had travelled well over the '150 yds until the next sign' that the instructions said. Back-tracking, nothing was visible until a broken sign post leaning at an angle against a birch trunk hidden by branches.
Going quickly until CP 1, I congratulated myself that my four layers were allowing sweat to escape while the core of my body still felt warm. The extremities – arms, shoulders, face etc – were cold but this was expected, it was a cold day. So at the CP, it was a surprise to find my hands so numb I couldnt close my fingers, couldn't hold my checking-in card. More important I was unable to hold a bar of chocolate to tear its wrapper off. The gloves obviously had to be put on immediately, and the hat; it was colder than I thought.
Crossing a field approaching CP 1 I had recognised a red top a hundred yards or so ahead - Dick Ockenden! And soon after CP 1 I caught up with him. After getting lost a couple of times I'd had enough so meeting Dick offered some relief from route uncertainty. Several times when we were together I wondered what I would have made of instructions had he not been there. In a dense, wood, at a five-way junction the instructions said 'turn left through bracken'. A gap went left on a wide track with bracken on each side; a group ahead were on it. But wrong; Dick shouted them back to take a much narrower leaf-covered path, sharper left, also with bracken borders.
Near the southern-most point on the route, after a long steady climb through a wood on a very soft wide track carved into foot-deep mud by heavy plant, we turned right onto an almost invisible very narrow track (some competitors said afterwards that some tracks werent even on the OS maps). A wide vista opened up to the north. Dick said 'you can see the North Downs' but they were too far away to be of interest compared with the nearer ground: wide open views left and right. A plain gently descended into a valley with an equally gentle ascent on the far side. All around, sandy ground, dotted by the occasional pine or birch, was covered with heather, low bushes and waving grass. In soft sunshine it was very attractive. Part was separated off by electric fencing. Dick said the area was entirely wooded until WW I when it was all felled. Now locals were trying to maintain this beautiful setting by managing access.
I mentioned Martin Greaves - Gatliff winner for a number of early years - and his finishing in exactly ten hours last year. 'Ah well' said Dick, 'he's wrecked'. The cause apparently being 'too many ultras' – every weekend at times. Martin wasn't the only suggested wreckage. As we went across a wide field a lone chap passed and paused for a brief chat with Dick. 'Who he?' 'David Wakeling'. Now he has won the event a dozen times or more. 'He wasn't moving very fast.' 'He doesnt have to, he just keeps going. But now he doesnt win any more as he is wrecked too.' 'But he last won just a couple of years ago?' What Dick meant was that David used to do under five hours regularly and win by a distance; this was now in the past. Dick mentioned a few other people being wrecked, himself included.
Ahead, David Wakeling got gradually smaller. Then in the distance, he began mincing around in front of a muddy gate - going from one side to the other. Eventually he hung onto the left gate-post, swung sharp left through the gate around some bushes off route and came back onto the route later. We found out why. Lovely slurry with footprints to show how entertainingly deep it was, began about twenty yards before the gate and covered all approaches. The broken gate leant out at an angle. I stood on this to get to the gate-posts then followed David's off-route left turn behind bushes. A waste of time - behind the bushes more deep foot-print covered mud. When I got back onto the route I saw how much time I had wasted. Dick had strolled unconcernedly through it and was well ahead.
About ten minutes away from the CP 3 lunch stop we were passed by runners coming at us. They had already been to CP 3. I recognised some - one looked like Don Newman - and realised how far back I had fallen. CP3, 27 km, reached in ten minutes over five hours. Timing had become tight – Dick's pace may be relaxing and he made route-finding easier, but it was slow. So I went on alone and discovered that after drifting gently along I had lots of energy in reserve. After CP3 I belted along for miles, feeling good and energetic - and that it was necessary. Anxious to make up time: I was behind schedule to finish in ten hours. From now on I was on my own until near the end.
A little rain fell as I was running along. It was very light for a while and I thought it was just right to cool me down. Then it got heavier and I thought I would have to stop, fish into my awkward back-pack and put a cagoule on, losing valuable time. Fortunately it didnt last.
Bridleways are usually wide and curve gradually. This one wasn't, and didnt. A series of narrow zig-zags it consisted of a barbed wire fence close on the left and a bramble hedge close right, with about 4 feet between them. Wriggling down the middle of its grassy surface was a narrow ravine – little wider than your foot and 6 to 9 inches deep with vertical sides. Into this your feet had to go. Trying to walk on its narrow grassy shoulders invited tearing on a choice of barbed wire or brambles. It was impossible and dangerous to run in this and I couldnt see a horse taking it safely. The instructions said 'beware rocky'. This seemed irrelevant; but as ever, you just had to be patient. After a few sharp turns they began: lots of rocks at the bottom of the trench to make it more interesting. (Afterards I thought 'what had made that trench? and realised: horses hooves! Keeping away from the barbed wire and brambles!)
By CP 5 the day was getting very cold and I was running less; a cagoule helped to help keep wind off and cold out. While lost in a farm-yard a chap in a yellow hat went past. I had wandered into the farm-yard and both the route options went nowhere so I was dithering about. The chap was on the path I had initially taken, until back-tracking after deciding I should have turned at the farm. I chased him. He thougtht the feature I was expecting was not at the farm but an unspecified distance after it. It was a case of 'keeping on' until the expected feature appeared. After a long way it did indeed appear – as usual: keep on for as long as necessary in the absence of other instruction.
I was pretty tired; bananas long eaten and their energy benefits spent. But CP5 was behind so the end was approaching. Time was still uncerain - I had slowed a lot after CP 4. I decided to try to keep this chap in view. This was testing: he ran a lot more than I would have done otherwise. Whenever he ran, which was often and for long periods, I did. I made a point of staying close to him. It was hard but it worked. I knew if he got away he would disappear quickly and I would lose a lot. Eventually we were jogging along together. To my surprise he was Don Newman. He had got 'significantly lost' after lunch ending up on the outskirts of East Grinstead. How he got that far off route and then got back onto it I could only imagine. So I had caught him up after he was so far ahead at CP3! It got duller and as we got near the finish officials passed us, putting out the lights to guide late finishers. But we didnt need them, we jogged along by the stream and in together as it got gloomy.
In the club-house, after a hot shower (unusual that) and lots of tea, I fell to talking with Tim and Brian. Brian hadnt been able to finish – retired with back pain at CP4. 'Wrecked'. Later I saw Dick: 'I couldnt manage the time'. More wreckage. Tim said he was slowing, but he was still pretty fast. And he said some competitors had set course records! So, not all wreckage! Rather, new growth blooming. Of course!
Doing it brought home the difficulties - 50 km is a long slog. It felt OK at first, but between CP4 and CP5 (35 km to 41.5 km) it was too long. I became too tired to run as much as was needed. Back-pain arrived after CP4, but a pain-killer and after CP5, better.
The time - 9 hours 19 minutes - was fine. Everything went well: the route was not harsh (Gatliff statistics - 'Gatistics!' - indicated it to be slightly easier than average); the weather was kind; by Gatliff standards the mud was merely average; I didnt fall over (though three times was out of control and on the edge); got no injuries; and meeting Dick probably meant I got lost less and rested me to make faster progress later.
Can we expect those to turn up heads again? Aye, there's the rub.