Written by Geoff Reed
The Gatliff is a 50 km cross-country ultra-marathon event, held annually, starting and ending at Edenbridge on the Kent / Sussex border. On Sunday 28th November I completed it once more ? this year in nine hours exactly. Each year the route is different: the only regular features being mud, hills, cold and wet. The route is nearly all across country, following less popular local footpaths and tracks, (ie a tendency towards the overgrown) where possible.
There is no mass start and I always start alone. When you begin you are checked out on a computer ? very modern. You carry a card to be completed at each of five check-points (where refreshments are provided) together with four sheets ? eight sides ? of instructions: a typical line being this year?s first:
?From door T1/4L (168 deg) across playing FD to X bridge in far cnr?.
So, as the early walkers left into the pitch dark ,I found it remarkable that they started on routes with a range of a good 30 degrees; and decided it best to wait till I could read the instructions without the - strongly advised - torch before starting. As well as a torch I carry a compass, protective gear and some sustenance in a small ruck-sack. Mike Elliot, and others, may think this an act of a softie, and it certainly doesn?t help the speed; but that?s fine: I?m out there all of daylight and then some now ? and it helps me.
This year was a good year: not seriously lost at all and only on my back in the mud once. When I went down the instructions were naturally out of their protective map case ? I was turning the page. But only the last page was now completely covered in mud and illegible, so a problem for later and on I went. The forecast all-day rain turned out to be only light rain at the start and some heavier for the last couple of hours when you have other things to care about. As usual the event mixed sections where you can jog along quite easily with ploughed fields and sections where traction can be nil, and hills where movement must be delicate.
For the first 20km I passed through walkers and often had the comfort of having someone in sight - but even then I?ve learnt always to read my own instructions. After 20km the fast runners started to come through. It is amazing how they can read the instructions as they run along. But then they sometimes don?t. Again, Mike Eliot may say it is easier than orienteering: no argument. But one couple repeatedly re-passed me (lots do that) and, at about 25km, complained their instructions were different from those of the slower person they had just checked with. Odd. Obviously I offered no help. I stay away from this kind of problem: doing my own event is tricky enough. Fortuitously at this moment the organizer ran by and I mentioned it to him. He was dismissive: ?some people just can?t do it can they?. A quick chat with them and off he ran. ?Well?? I asked the previously querying girl: ?wrong page?. ?Remarkable how you got this far really?. ?Shambles? and off they went. They were not unique. Another speedy group went past later and soon turned left between farm buildings; then returned half a minute later and tore straight on. When I got near the farm the instruction to turn right through a gap in a fence was plain.
After half way I was mainly on my own, as usual ? left behind by the fast runners and ahead of the walkers. Eventually, the rain gear went on and I reached the outskirts of Edenbridge. I read - ?XKGA into churchyard? - then turned over to the illegible last page of the instructions. So I busked it from then on, asking locals and guessing; to reach my reward of a shower, a meal and a celebratory throwing away of the shoes and socks I?d worn.
I first completed the Gatliff in 1986 ? more quickly than now obviously ? when the unsuspected joys of mud, flood, cold and wet, coupled with the number of times I got lost, persuaded me that it was obvious no-one should do this event more than once. That worked for a year or two. Not sure why I did it the second time but now I have successfully completed the event 15 of the 21 times it has been held; and fewer than ten people have completed it more often. The conditions are naturally no more attractive that that first year, but I get lost less now.
Although it is not a team event I have no doubt the organizers would be pleased to see a crowd from Kingston and Poly there next November. Let?s see shall we!
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