id1019-Gatliff 2009

Written by GR   

Here,for your Christmas and New Year edification,is the latest in Geoff Reed's Masterpieces of Nonchalance,a typical trait of those champions of extreme endurance.There's that indelible touch of whimsy,too.

Geoff has sub-headed,and suggests that,as some of us may have short attention-spans,we can read one section at a time and if we tire,we can then return at a later date to absorb more.

Gatliff 2009

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The Gatliff:

Sunday 29th November 2009

‘Old men ought to be explorers’

Lights, cameras:

I can’t find the new start - Rackam Hall, Edenbridge High St - must be invisible. Driving around dead streets, finally someone to ask - unloading a car. Of course, unloading for the event. The Hall is hidden behind shops. I pay £8 entry on the day. No map on display. Where to this year? No-one knows; one person thinks ‘east’; makes a change.

Before we start: Tramadol for the back, bananas for the front. Martin Greaves, says:

‘in the conditions I thought they might cancel the ‘50’’. At the time I am surprised – it is just weather. Later on, slithering up slopes with him, I understand. I’d been ignorant of the extent of rural flooding, he was not. The weather gets worse each year. Obviously this is not me. Is it the new global wetting we’re hearing so much of?

The good news this year is that for the first time they have produced instructions for blind people: A3 size. You have to fold them twice as often as A4 but I manage to read them in the rain all day without glasses, even to a 4.30 pm finish. I misread at times - ‘Dairy Green’ as ‘Dairy Queen’; but so what; there was no green, just an alley between hedges.


7.15 am: starting alone, slightly lost in the first half-kilometre, almost before leaving Edenbridge, then seeing the first flood I recalled Martin and wondered if it was going to be possible this year. It felt daunting. The route soon went across a meadow that reflected the sky – flooded. Probably only over tops of shoes; in terms of later on, nothing, but everyone was diverting around it. In the next field feet got soaked anyway. At the second checkpoint (18 km) I put my second cagoule on – left shoulder cold and wet - the first cagoule wringing by then from persistent heavy rain.

It didn’t rain all the time. We had a good hour of dry to start. But then it rained most of the day; at times hard, thunder twice, hail once – covering the dog (?) in white. But rain was never the problem: it was expected and planned for - lots of layers. The problem was the earlier days, weeks of heavy rain. Ground wasn’t saturated; it was flooded. Fields, flat paths were under water, sloping ones were streams; roads with water flowing.

I came across Neil and Valerie, with Pebbles the dog. They had tried the Gatliff twice before and failed to beat ten hours each time. This year conditions were particularly difficult and I didn’t want to stay with two (three) who couldn’t manage a sub-ten hour finish. So, as they took longer than ten hours I thought I’d better finish ahead of them.


After a couple of hours, jogging up a slight rise in the rain, through a rough flooded meadow, reading the instructions I took a sudden header. (No, you can’t always stop to read eight close-printed pages of instructions; you’d never get anywhere.)

One of the group said: ‘that looked heavy – are you alright?’

‘Yes’. I wasn’t – a sharp pain in the ribs when I hit the ground. It recurred every time I climbed a style; and later, while running along.

I said ‘I usually avoid falling – this was a first for some years’, so it is a bad sign when within half an hour I am down again.

Runners passed as we walked over a medium-sized ploughed field.

‘That wasn’t much in the larger scheme of things.’

Through trees, immediately a second ploughed field – soggier, wider, uphill.

‘Maybe this is worth more in the scheme of things?’

Soles covered in thick mud from them, we come to another style. As I stand on it I see it slopes away from me. Too late - foot slides forward, body backwards. I am on my back in mud, feet still up on the style, stuck, map case tangled round my knees. Looking and feeling like an idiot. I think: if I keep on falling over at this rate I’m not going to finish.


Three hours in, we jog along a wide valley in the rain, water flowing 20 yards to the left: lapping over grass; no clear bank. Not in the instructions - another flood overflow. We approach a group making heavy weather of trying to cross it: ten to fifteen feet wide, flowing fast. People are used to getting water and mud over shoes but this is different. It is half way up calves; some grip a broken fence for support only a few feet in, dithering.

Their crossing, where the track goes up the other side of the valley, seemed unpromising. Twenty yards before that, rippling water; it usually indicates shallows so I headed for it. There was no bank, just wet grass then water. So in I went heading for the ripples. One step was on wet grass, the next was in deep water. What had happened? Where had my knees gone? Water was half way up my quads; legs absolutely freezing.

A jolly chap shouted ‘I’m glad you did that; I was following you and I was going to’. He made no effort to help. Brief desperation at not being able to move; then my hand at chest level onto ground, a vault and out; shoes still on feet - what more could you want?

Soaking from my quads down, my first, ridiculous, thought was: ‘good job I hadn’t put my rain-proof trousers on’. A second thought followed: I had to keep moving as fast as possible now to make heat. The good fortune of remaining upright in the water didn’t occur to me for a while. Pansying around to avoid calf-deep water was no longer an issue. I splashed straight through the calf deep crossing and up the other side as fast as I could. I was wearing two sets of leggings and my legs didn’t actually feel that much wetter than before the dip; but they were cold. I hurried up the slope with Martin. We talked about his pre-event warning on conditions and cancellation, but not about my dip.


The woods are always beautiful, even in a damp autumn. But they offer the most difficult route-finding. All instructions can say is: left, right or straight on. But paths in woods aren’t like that and they are repetitive – cross-paths all read the same but look quite different on the ground. There were a lot of woods on the second half of the route and it was probably inevitable that we would get lost in them. We passed several cross-tracks close together, not turning. The instructions read:

‘…ahead at JCTN. At next junction, go ahead on feint path. In 70m cross-tracks and ahead. Another 70m TL at JCTN. In 250m XST into FD.’

A crowd of runners passing us turned left; we did too. I was exhausted by this time – 35km in – severe cramp in my upper legs. I asked Valerie if this was the left turn. ‘Actually I’m not sure’. I timed it, suspicious. We jogged down a steep slope for 4 minutes. I thought: I hope we don’t have to come back up this. Inevitably we did. After some distance the resolution of the runners faded – the expected ‘field with a style’ wasn’t there and they began to mill about. From some way back I said ‘it’s the wrong way’, turned and slogged up back to the junction – ten minutes wasted. On, for another 70 yards to another left turn: this one leading to a field and style.

Neil and Valerie discussed training. As I do none I had nothing to contribute except the helpful opinion that it is boring. As they do lots, how come they can’t manage sub-ten hours for the Gatliff? Neil said it was the tempting check-point stops.

In the afternoon came a lot more hills: not much traction up them. I lead up, they lead down. I try to find less slippery ground amongst brambles at the edge or going off-route amongst roots and undergrowth. Even with hands on quads, going up the steeper slopes is cramping. Neil and Valerie show an increasing tendency to run downhill regardless of grip – root hopping, mud skating. Ridiculous; I follow of course – they’ve never managed ten hours.

At CP 5 after 42.5 km I put my head torch on and we go down Crockham Hill. It starts to flatten out. It is gloomy and rainy but doesn’t get any darker. I can still read my giant instructions without a torch and do so all the way. We meet Tim Styles… or he meets us.

When Neil and Valerie stop running I usually catch up – then they’re off again. Now all four begin running and don’t stop. I usually don’t run the last few km of the Gatliff - its bad manners - I walk in exhausted. I want them to stop running badly and am so tempted to let them go. But if I do I’ll take ages to finish. I hang on as we all run the last 3km.

Tim has started to say things like ‘I recognise this’. I don’t recognise anything. The continuous running really hurts. But hurts what exactly? Not my lungs – it isn’t fast; not my legs, ditto. It’s just a complete lack of energy. Every stride I want to stop. It has become a race. Why bother? We all started at different times. Tim checked me out at the computerised start, so he began long afterwards. When I first met Valerie and Neil I can’t recall if they were passing me or the reverse. But now we’re having a race. Tim is in front - Valerie won’t let him get away. Neil and the dog are chasing them and I hang on to everyone. At times they may be 40 yards ahead but I keep up: it’s not ‘Maranzano’ pace.

I start to recognise things now but I can’t predict what will happen next. Maybe this is all Tim meant. We zig-zag: through meadows, around hedges, along fences. It gets more urban. Traffic lights - a chance to catch up? No, they jump them; so do I.

We’re round the corner and through the gate in a tight line into the hall. I hand my ticket in; no-one seems be bothered about it and they chat on. My time is 9.14 by me, 9.16 by my certificate. Humph! Tim is much quicker but Valerie and Neil are slower. Ahh.

The last challenge is to get clean in a hall with 200 muddy people and one ‘gents’. A few get changed in the body of the hall, I’m into the gents. A good thing about wearing leggings is they collect most of the mud. Throw away the socks; get the certificate; bid good-byes; and out into heavy rain to the car and home. (Shoes disgusting.)


David Wakeling said: ‘I am pleased I didn’t win this year - no more pressure’. I said: ‘I didn’t win either and I am pleased’. Brian did under ten hours for once; he is pleased too.

Mark said: did I enjoy any of it while I was doing it? I said ‘no’ but that wasn’t completely so, anyway, wrong question. I said to Neil and Valerie how lovely it was in the woods. We agreed the disadvantage was hurrying so we didn’t get as much pleasure as we might. I said I keep the routes; they do the same - and do parts of them again.

My boss is a member of the Serpentine club. On Tuesday he unexpectedly congratulates me: ‘results on the web! a Serpie mate came 3rd ; a load of Serpies packed up!’ Mmm.

A week afterwards, the wife said: ‘what’s that scab on your head?’

‘The Gatliff; coming through a high hedge, hit my head.’

‘You should wear your hat.’

‘I was wearing my hat’ (I thought at the time ‘a good job too’).

‘It must have gone through the hat. Bald men always banging their heads.’ (Bald! Who?)

On Wednesday morning I had a flying appointment with my personal physician. It’s 5.30. I am driving him to Heathrow. Changing gear, a sharp pain on the right of my chest; I complain. ‘What’s that?

‘I think I’ve broken a rib’

‘Probably not; you’ve probably torn something.’

‘It’s so painful I can’t sleep on it.’

‘You may have broken something. We’ll see. If it’s torn, it’ll be OK in two weeks, otherwise six.’

Eventually: ‘Probably the Gatliff isn’t good for you.’

‘The rest is silence.’

Fade to black


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