Written by GCR
Another really good read for those of an adventurous disposition and a sense of humour
The Gatliff 50 km: 25th November 2012.
Gone as the Season it’s Taken.
An autumn of continuous rain followed a wet summer. This would mean a thoroughly sodden route and should please the route creator, Dick Ockenden. He loved mud, the deeper the better, and was a bit disappointed with the relatively dry conditions last year.
Myself, for days, weeks even, beforehand, I felt foreboding - in complete contrast to last year when I was full of equally irrational confidence beforehand. I couldn’t shake it.
True, recent years’ times had become tighter, so getting lost was less an entertainment, more a threat. Now it could mean failing to finish in the ten-hour time-limit; being out in black dark; stopping to read instructions by torchlight every few yards – slow and difficult. But this applied last year too.
Maybe it was the cold. For whatever reason, this year seemed daunting. Though, with over 20 successful completions behind me it should not. It is just a long, cross-country, route-finding jog, in softy south-east England. But the foreboding would not go away.
Training might have helped; but I never train. Then again, ‘anno-domini’ was a factor. And I turned my ankle ten days beforehand. But, as Mark said, that was the time to get injured - in ten days it would be better.
So I prepared conservatively: additional layers in case of unexpected cold; extra sustenance and pain-killers; supports on both ankles. Naturally I checked the weather daily. Sunday was forecast as a dry day between wet ones; temperatures expected to be mild – around eight degrees. It sounded OK.
The Gatliff web-site had the usual helpful information: starting location, times, prices. And to my surprise, a line map of the route with grid reference bearings for various points. This was a first! I plotted them on my OS maps. You are recommended to carry OS maps. If you get lost while using the instructions, a map isn’t going to tell you where you took the wrong turning, but it can help you get back to civilisation. However, using a map for route-finding, say working out the way between grid references, would be much slower than using the instructions; and harder.
This year the event was not going up to the North Downs. It was taking an easterly loop: first north for about five miles as far as the Greensand Ridge, then east along that for a similar distance; then a long wriggle south, then west and finally north again home. When the route came down from the Greensand Ridge after CP 2, the rest looked mainly flat. This meant the going should then be relatively easy, making time-keeping less of a bother. This all seemed hopeful.
And so it did happen, as it could have been foreseen.
I intended to start when it was adequately light, at the usual time around 7.15 am. Before then I was surprised at how light it had got. I thought I could - maybe should - start earlier; but overtaking walkers in the first few miles is relaxing and makes early route-finding easier. And, in front of the check-out desk a long queue of walkers was waiting to be computer-checked out. So I waited.
The route went east through the town, then north-east over flat fields towards the Greensand Ridge. To my surprise field after field was completely flooded. Much of the flat ground was covered by shallow pools with the rest having a thin layer of water hidden amongst the grass.
So I spent time, and the abundant energy I then had, slipping around and taking diversions around the larger pools.
The skin of water on top of the grass was everywhere. Mostly you didn’t sink into it, just slithered about. So movement was awkward for these first few miles. Then we got to the sandy underfoot of the Ridge and turned west. Now some of the footings offered a bit of grip as we started to go up and down hills. Sandy mud was everywhere but it was often possible to dodge off the path and thrash through brambles and bushes to find better grip up the hills.
After CP 1, going up a densely wooded slope there was supposed to be a stone seat. I found it and sat on it to take in the wonderful 20 mile plus view, south to the South Downs. Two steeply descending paths went in the direction of the view at the seat; one at the left side, the other at the right. It seemed obvious which one to take – the second – the instructions said:
‘Pass stone seat at top. FR’
Admittedly passing it and instantly FR. They did not say:
‘FR at stone seat’.
Nevertheless, as I sat gazing, a group of runners happily took the first path and when I shouted them back, indulged in a long discussion on which to take.
We got similar lovely southerly views several times during the day. Early on it was always a long-distance view. Later on, in the afternoon through steady rain, at a view point I said to Don Newman, ‘it would be a good view but for the rain’. He replied ‘it’s ok, you can still see it’. And you could; blurred and less far, but you could.
Not all the runners displayed the care in discussion that the crowd did at the stone seat. Lots of faster runners kept re-passing me. Several groups became familiar, as I did to them and we became friendly, the same groups passing several times with increasing shouts of recognition. Even so, eventually these speedy types no longer re-passed again. This meant one of two things: either they finally got completely lost and never re-discovered the route; or, they eventually just stayed ahead.
Heading over fields covered in water towards the Greensand Ridge, movement was difficult, slipping around every stride. The Ridge offered a change but as soon as we left it and got back onto flat fields, the earlier underfoot conditions returned: fields covered in a layer of water. They gave almost no traction; each stride a slithery slip, partly in the general direction you wanted to go and partly in some other direction, mainly sideways. It was slow, hard work and unrelievedly unpleasant. The lack of traction was exhausting - slipping about and making poor progress.
I used my energy reserves - three bananas - early on; and even so ran out of energy surprisingly soon - well before the lunch stop. This was not normal. And with distracting back-pain it ended up being a three-tramadol day.
The lunch stop, at 27 km, arrived unexpectedly late – after 5 and a quarter hours. This was a nasty surprise - it was getting close for a ten-hour finish. OK it was over half way; but there was no slack. I came across Dick and mentioned this to him. He said he wasn’t thinking about the time; probably just enjoying the mud and lack of traction – it must have been paradise for him.
Plodding along next to a hedge in the afternoon, looking for somewhere to put my feet, I saw Dick and a small group some distance ahead suddenly make a right-angle turn left. Off-route according to my instructions but Dick must know something. I chased him and his group down through a long field and when I caught up to them he said: ‘we are lost’. Not possible, this was Dick. I wasn’t. I couldn’t figure out why they had turned off. He said it was a new part of the route and he didn’t know it. Of course he was trotting along with no instructions as usual, just carrying it all in his head.
Rain was forecast for late afternoon and so it began earlier, soon after 1pm. It wasn’t heavy at first; but if you were stupid enough to carry the instructions in your hand, thinking that gentle rain wouldn’t wet them very much you found out soon that you were wrong. I was guilty of this asinine behaviour. I had picked up a set of instructions for blind people, to read the more easily; and their A3 pages had to be turned over and re-fitted into an A4 waterproof pouch, twice as often as normal sized instructions. And as they were twice the size of the pouch it was awkward. So I just got tired of doing it and started to carry them unprotected: part of the general exhaustion. Anyway the pouch was full of OS maps and the line map of the route: too much of nothing.
Naturally the rain became heavier. The instructions became wet. I tore off the page I was using so only that became wet but my instructions were heading for illegibility and I was only saved by the fortunate offer of a set of normal-sized instructions from a marshal at the next CP.
The rain polished the underfoot a bit more and the odd fall was inevitable. Not that they caused any damage; just offering spectacle to anyone nearby. The best, sliding down a bank in a hail of mud, water and leaves, to be greeted with ‘are you all right?’ ‘Yes’. Sub-voce ‘well, pride apart’.
Time continued to fly by. I and my companions continued to slide about, exhausting ourselves rather than flying along the route. The usual phrase to describe this behaviour is two steps forward for one step back; but it wasn’t that effective. Most steps included slipping sideways and backwards as much as moving forwards; and making the effort to keep going was increasingly exhausting. I noticed occasional fit-looking individuals retiring at CPs; it was understandable.
It wasn’t all slippery ground. There were brief excursions through civilisation - villages and towns. And even in the country there were sections with more solid ground underfoot. This was helpful as it allowed large pools to form. I recall, in late afternoon, approaching one of many extensive pools: dark chocolate water, 20 feet wide across the path and extending for some distance ahead. I was now far beyond using non-existent energy to try to go around this type of obstacle and strode on through it without a pause; only thinking as water rose up to my calves that I should slow a little or my upper body might go faster than my lower and I would be over in it. Otherwise complete indifference to cold deep sludge.
Sometimes you did sink into mud in the way you would expect. And it would cling to you in friendly fashion as lonely mud ought to. But mostly you just slid about on top of it, making little impression - on its surface or on the route you were trying to take.
At the next check-point (CP) the time / distance equation was even less favourable: over seven hours taken to do two thirds of the route. It did not look good. It was increasingly unlikely that I was going to finish in time. I had always said to myself that I wasn’t going to do the event any more when I failed. I said this to Dick who replied ‘that’s silly’: a mature soul and very happy in his muddy world.
The timeless explosion of fantasy’s dream.
Three of us (Dick, Don Newman, me) arrived in gathering gloom at CP 5. Two of us had given up on finishing in anything like a reasonable time and one didn’t care. It was getting dark and still over 6 km to go. Having given up on time, Don and I weren’t rushing. We took on board the necessary fluids in leisurely fashion. I badly needed energy: sweet tea and ginger biscuits. Dick stood at the exit waiting patiently: ‘shall we go?’ We head-torched ourselves up and off we went. It had seemed gloomy when we arrived and we left into black dark. The CP marshals gave the impression we were now nearly last. We didn’t care, though I wondered where everyone else had got to.
As we left I continued as usual reading the instructions aloud; for myself and the company. But I realised that I was now having to stop to do so in the dark, and just gave up. I was just holding myself up and it was unnecessary. Dick was like a cat, making turns in the dark without a pause.
The lack of traction had been going on forever. I kept thinking that eventually it would end and we would be able to get a grip and move more easily. Now, with haste a thing of the past, it was no longer a worry. So I thought that it would give up - now it didn’t need to hold us up anymore. But it didn’t even let up in the dark. It was perpetual.
Nearing the end, we approached Edenbridge from the south and slithered across what I recognised even in the dark as the local grass airfield. Dick pointed out the landing strip itself. If anything tried to land on that now it would slide all the way through the nearest hedge and into the river.
Lights placed by marshals in corners of fields told you that you were nearing the end. Dick said they had been put in particularly invisible places so that they were easy to miss, and they had succeeded in this. But we were with Dick! And so onto the long winding path next to the river Eden, slipping and sliding each step. Finally to cross the rugby pitches that adjoin the sports pavilion. Even on them there was no purchase, slipping around, no grip to ease progress. I walked in as fast as I could, leaving others behind – I just wanted it over.
The showers were cold so no-one was using them. The communal shower base was ankle-deep in cold brown fluid with a washing brush floating in it. I had taken my socks and track-suit leggings off intending to shower. I picked up my shoes, stood in the brown water and brushed clinging mud off them; the result may be still filthy but a later wash would be easier. OK, no shower; so food. Bare-footed, in navy long-johns, ignored, I walked into the main hall, consumed the simple sustaining food and drink and sat in the warmth as stories were told. Someone said they had ‘garmined’ it and it was 35 miles not 50 km (31.2 miles). I gave that little credence. Much was on familiar tracks so distances known from previous years. Dick works out the distances with care and had apologised for the 35 km event having to be over 37 km. So one would back Dick any time - that the distances were pretty close to what he said they were. Unless you found your own route in which case your garmin would register that of course.
There remains the issue of proselytising for other Kingston-Poly athletes to do this event. This has ill-advisedly occurred now and then. It is probably high time to say how excellent their judgement has been in not attempting this in the past. And that attitude should continue into the future.
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