id1788-Gatliff 50 km, 29th November 2015

Written by Geoff Reed   

No Fat Lady Yet*

(* To quote the legendary David Barrington.)

'In days bygone – long gone', I used to recommend the Gatliff to other Kingston and Poly cross-country runners. Probably that was naïve, with its miles of mud, weather that can be extreme, 50km being 5 miles further than a marathon and this one is over tough terrain.  So other cross-country ultras may be more attractive to start with, if one is inclined that way. Anyway take-up has been nil. Possibly, like Oscar Wilde, K&P cross-country runners can resist everything except temptation; and since the Gatliff offers no temptation they can resist it. 'Good decision'.

Before the start I spoke to Dick (Ockenden, route designer). He said “it's going to be greasy”. I wasn't sure of the difference between that and muddy, but he was right.  He was proud of a short new section that “only the 50 km route does” – half-way between  CP 5 and the finish. “It might be dark when you get there so you won't realise you are on it”. Indeed; as I told him afterwards.

But then I didn't recognise much of the supposedly familiar remainder of the route either. Even though, in the early morning, I ran with a chap who kept saying “I recognise this bit” as we passed yet another anonymous hedge, field or turning. He had obviously done lots of Gatliffs but was vague about how many. Eventually I teased out of him that the last time he finished in under ten hours was either 2007 or 2009. So I bad him goodbye and ran on, leaving him to go on recognising features that meant nothing to me; and finishing out-of-time.

Unusually the route was anti-clockwise, first heading south-east then east before turning north, all flat low-lying country. Hours of muddy slithering about on my own, through waterlogged grassy fields and on the narrow margins between hedges and furrows. Yes this qualified as 'greasy'. No solid purchase underfoot anywhere. Until, hours later, heading for CP 4 I reached some consistently firm ground at last.

Keeping ahead of schedule was soon an issue. By 19k running was not much faster than walking, impeded by endless 'grease'. I shed layers: I had dressed for the expected gale and rain: neither had arrived and I was getting hot. Lack of any sighting of Dick confirmed a slow pace. He started only fifteen minutes earlier but I saw no sign of him before CP 2. Meanwhile groups of runners went past with tiny rucksacks, in marked contrast to my pack. They probably didn't wear ankle bandages either but mine earned their corn.

Fairly early on I took the obligatory tumble, reading instructions while running. It may have been unpleasant having ground that was always uneven and slippy, but worse when suddenly it wasn't there at all and I was spinning onto my back. Just messy, but a warning about reading while moving.

A line of fast-moving competitors on the 35 km route joined us just before CP 2. Fresh and young with so much energy! Last year I saw lots of young men racing; this year it was young ladies enjoying themselves. “The 35km distance is the ideal length” I was told. Really? So that was it. I knew there must be something - 25 years of doing the wrong distance! But hang on, the 35km distance wasn't offered in 1985. The male leader of one such group tried to get his followers to care about route-finding; but no, they knew he would do it for them.

I finally caught up with Dick at CP 3. I had glimpsed him leaving the previous check-point as I arrived but it was CP 3 before we spoke. What he said was surprising given his love of dreadful conditions underfoot: “it's much worse than I thought”. He had expected it to be greasy but what took him aback was: “ I lost a shoe; completely; had to fish for it”. I too had nearly lost a shoe but mine were tightly laced to guard against this pleasure. Dick left CP 3 first, having arrived before me. Not long afterwards, as I thought, I left. But again Dick had vanished.

After a mile or so the 50 km route turned south again into wide-open low lying fields, while the 35 km route continued west hugging higher ground, hedges and trees. At CP 3 Dick had said these low fields might be OK as “they are all grass”. Indeed, just as he said they were all grass, but, no, not OK: waterlogged.

After a whistful look back at the 35 km competitors avoiding this, I turned to survey the panorama to the south: one long and wide grassy field followed by another in the distance. Then at last:

“I saw it, red and white revealed

amongst the white and green

the white and green was a grassy field

the red and white was … Dick” (after TH)

Far away in the second field, a small red blob finally in sight.  After chasing him due south for some time the route suddenly turned sharply north. Fields became smaller and frequent woods reduced views. Dick disappeared again but I knew he was out there somewhere.

On a narrow path heading north, a barbed wire topped fence close left, (dont tear the cagoule), brambles close right, a rutted, muddy ascent, I pass an older competiitor : “ this is really a struggle”.  I felt that too and “keep going” was all I could offer. We were half-way between check-points, in the middle of nowhere, so there was no choice. He looked exhausted, as if he would not finish in the time and indeed may retire at the next - distant - CP. But you never know: when the route turned eventually west around Ide Hill the going became much firmer all the way to CP 5; that might encourage him. And just going over the shoulder of Ide Hill was so much easier than it could have been - going to the top and then down again.

Around that time, still heading north I paused, scratching my head at a complicated multi-way junction between several fields with no path and no obvious route. A youngish chap in a blue T-shirt passed without stopping: “It says 'have the hedge on the right' ”. It did. So I did. And followed him. Shortly afterwards along a muddy field-edge, he said: “I've had enough of this” meaning the endless mud. But later on he changed his tune saying it wasn't unusually muddy - “every Gatliff is the same”.

At first I let this blue T-shirt go ahead, but noticed that it wasn't leaving me much and decided to stick with its owner as a useful pacemaker for a while.  He said he was just doing his pace: I was welcome to leave him if I wished - as I had 'running in my locker'. Well, maybe. He had started off at about 7.30, ten minutes or so after me and expected to finish within ten hours, but only just. Mmm.

After hours of slipping around dispiritingly on my own it was a pleasant change to slither about in company; or at least chasing someone fairly closely. Comfortably close behind him, I stopped for a break near the start of a wood. When I started again he had completely disappeared. I ran for ages through twists and turns in dense woodland making instant decisions about junctions without stopping, but no sign. The 50 km route had now rejoined the 35 km one and I kept passing slower people, so I thought I was 'on-route' – as long as these people weren't just out for a stroll. Still no sign of my target. I wasn't looking closely at the instructions now so was I on the route? Eventually through dense brush a glimpse of a pale blue T-shirt. Whew! Now that I knew how much I wanted to keep him in view and how quickly he could get away I would have to concentrate to avoid it happening again.

The gale duly arrived during the afternoon while we were heading directly into it. In exposed places I didn't waste effort running as it would offer little gain over walking and at great effort. But whenever it was sheltered I ran hard to catch up.

At CP 4, I asked how far ahead Dick was:“about ten minutes”. Still not gaining - how did he do it? Now I headed my blue-T-shirted companion significantly.  A load of salty snacks at the CP gave me a burst of energy; so on a long straight track through a wood I ran fast for 600m or more, making good use of that 'running in my locker'. At the end I stopped again to read the instructions, looked around and there he was: just 30 yards or so behind!

Eventually, trailing him by about sixty yards, but now with the underfoot firmer, we saw and began to close on Dick. I wanted to catch my pace-maker before he got to Dick to tell him who it was, but couldn't. He passed Dick without a pause or a word as far as I could tell. When I got to Dick we chatted  briefly. Then I said: “gotta go, I'm following that chap”. And Dick gave me his name:

“Louis? yes he's, good.”

We were never really together Louis and I. As he said, he was just doing his own thing. And I had decided to chase him for a while and just kept on doing it. We were usually separated by a distance and he didn't do conversation. But as we approached the last CP he said it would “have to be a quick in-and-out stop” as we were short of time. He was as good as his word. The check-point officials were just inside the Youth Hostel door. He gave them his card; they took his number; he turned on his heel and left: ten seconds tops. I was impressed and tried to follow suit but I needed a drink and swallowed down a cup of juice as fast as I could: turnaround 30 seconds. A significant difference - Louis was away and had to be caught again.

Due to that 'quick in-and-out' without knowing it we got ahead of some faster runners who had passed us earlier. Later they passed us again saying: “how did you manage that?” Ah, being efficient!

I saw Don Newman again – he has done nearly every Gatliff and this year was well covered up for the bad weather that didn't arrive. I'd seen him earlier, leaving a check-point just before I reached it, and thought I'd not catch him as he was too far ahead and I was slow. But I met him just after CP 5 when I was going faster. He said: “I think the maths are against me” - i.e. for finishing inside ten hours. Recalling how a year or two ago, I had latched onto him as he ran continuously the final few km to the finish, I suggested running after Louis with me. He said: “I haven't the energy to run”. Nor had I but I was doing it. Probably what he lacked was hope: I still had hope that if I stuck at it I'd finish inside the ten hours. From here on staying with Louis was increasingly difficult though increasingly important. Like Don I was comparing time passed with distance covered and it looked as if the only way I was going to finish inside ten hours was by sticking with Louis.

When we left CP 5 the day was already 'winding down at God-speeded summer's end'.  It had nearly always been heavily overcast but now was noticeably duller. I didn't want it to get any darker as it made route-finding difficult, so I decided it wouldn't. For a little while that seemed to work. But then I'd stop paying attention – concentrate on running, chasing, instruction reading, route-finding, something, anything – and when you looked again at the sky it had darkened a bit more. And the ground gradually lost colour and contrast.  For a while, in these ever more awkward conditions, I continued to read my instructions . But after we turned onto their last – full – page I pretty-well gave up: I was in danger of losing touch with Louis whenever I paused to read them.

I tried to keep within twenty yards or so.Then Louis disappeared round a hedge corner and I hardly saw him go; I realised I had to get closer or lose him altogether: I had been giving him too much slack. Now I ran until he was within a few yards - exhausting. I'd walk to recover and be left again. So it went on: running to close the gap, walking for recovery, losing ground, running to close the gap…….

It got darker. We caught up with four or five youngsters and it became hard to see Louis at the head of this group, doing his own thing with them close-packed in behind.

We descended to a railway line, ascended the other side, then over a stone bridge to cross another line.  These features and the golf course that followed told me that we were nearing the end.  By another turn at a hedge we came to the first fixed route-light. These show the finish is near; a chap passed going the other way, carrying kit, and said 'well done' - the person planting the lights.  They are put out near the finish to help you get home in the dark. Then you can -  supposedly - almost go from light to light. We passed a second light. Then no more for a while.

A jog across a fairway, through a line of trees, across another fairway: desperately trying to keep up. Suddenly I was with them all. They were no longer making progress but back-tracking, each going in a different direction, circling a low metallic building. Someone was trying to use a GP tracking device: “I cant get a signal”. Lost?  Surely not now: ridiculous.

Torch on to see my watch: 4.53. Surprising how much time had passed since CP 5.  Then I had thought: 8 km in one and a half hours should be OK as long as I kept to Louis' pace. Now, we had stopped moving altogether, but the clock had not.

It became obvious in a few seconds that no-one had any idea what to do; thrashing around like headless chickens in the dark in long grass hoping for a non-existent path to appear. We'd obviously gone well off the route as we'd seen no light for a long time.

I realised we had strayed too far left – east – because, looking further left, I saw what had no business being there at all: a road. We shouldn't have been anywhere near that, instead coming to the finish from the north-east across open country and fields. But the road offered a solution. I said, mainly to Louis: “there's a road, let's go down that”.

Louis was doubtful: “which way do we go on the road?”

I thought this a bit surprising shall we say, as the answer was obvious: “south”. Just go in the direction we were going already but on the road. Edenbridge is small; we were on the correct – west - side of it and must be close – we had already passed two finishing lights. Reardless of others I headed for the road through high grass and rubble.

Louis said :”I've found a path!”. Easier and safer than thrashing through waist-high grass in the dark so I turned to it. Then: “oh, it goes to the road.” Still an easier way to it. A high boundary fence might make you wonder where the path thought it was going. But with horizontal bars the fence was easily scaled and the group became a straggled line along the road, heading south.

This was the easiest part of the day – a good Bob McDonough-type road-race surface. Clean, flat, street lights; no mud, pot-holes or brambles; no worries about missing the next turn; no need to slow down to read the instructions in the dark. We were off-route and not trying to get back on it so instructions no longer applied. You never want to get lost at all on the Gatliff. But if you do get lost then this is the kind of 'lost' that you want: where you don't need to bother trying to find the route again, just write it off and try to find the finish. Not that we had managed to do that last bit yet. Still it was relaxing.

The only downside - there always is one - was not knowing where we were going. Would the road continue? Would it eventually take us to somewhere that we could recognise, or at least somewhere we could use to figure out our way to the finish - before the ten hours were up; ie within the next twenty minutes? So the silver lining had its' inevitable cloud. But we had seen lights before we got lost. The whole idea of getting lost this close to the finish was faintly ridiculous but we had managed it. They only place route lights for a mile or so, certainly less than two, from the finish. So we shouldnt have been too far away. And we were heading in broadly the right direction – south – and so closing the gap. It all depended on what the road did.

What did it do? Eventually it turned east. Better than west?  The club-house finish was, if anything, south-east if we had been coming in on the route. We had gone too far east – to our friendly road - so due south looked to be the most likely direction of the finish. And east took us further into Edenbridge which meant more chance of recognising something, like a bigger road. So looking good. Still, nothing familiar and no actual idea where we were. 5.05 pm. Fifteen minutes to the ten-hour limit.

Then a small triangular green ahead. “I recognise this; turn right and it's on the left just after Tanners Mead.” At the junction we turned almost completely back on ourselves – we had over-shot and were coming in a long way round, but no matter. Home was in sight! Well not in fact, but now I knew the way so good as. And only a few minutes away.

At the finish I couldn't undo my laces to get my muddy shoes off, so that I could check in inside the club-house. I had no time to waste so after a minute or so I gave up, walked in, finished, then walked back out to take my trainers off at leisure.  Then back into the hall in stockinged feet still wearing the rest of my gear, commandeered a table and got all the food and drink, especially fluids, that was going.

In the club-house I felt much better than last year, much less exhausted. A regime of regular short jogs interspersed with short walks, seemed to work: the one giving the muscles involved in doing the other a rest.  And pains were less than in some years; hamstring and quad cramps while going over styles were never severe, even towards the end. The ankles were bandaged and and the knees held up. Worst was the bottom of my left foot hurting from before CP 1, but you got used to it. And this year the Gatliff showers were not the cold rugby ones. They were a different set – a hot and delightful luxury.

After sitting down to eat I naturally had difficulty getting up - my body thinking: I like this, let's never move again. Stiffness and pains came to call and you move like an arthritic, but what do you expect? For a couple of days this continued; just as well otherwise I might have forgotten all about the day.

During the day most took it for granted, wearing little, but we were lucky with the weather. It was supposed to be gales and rain all afternoon; however the gales were late and intermittent and the rain even later. Afterwards as I left the club-house the gale howled and the rain poured – yes, very lucky.

After the end Louis said: “I didn't need to rush, I still had quarter of an hour”. Me? I had nine minutes. I said to Dick and Tim afterwards: “there's a message in that”. And it isn't, as the family clown suggested later, that with all that spare time I could have done less training. You can't do less than virtually none anyway as Mark knows. Nor is it that once it gets dark you are likely to find yourself in real trouble with route-finding on the Gatliff. Though that last is certainly a message too.

For the numerically fascinated:

Some of my GATStats:

Elapsed Times Distances -

to CP Arrivals Cumulative

Start: 7.20 am 0.0 km

CP 1: 8.40 am 7.6 km

CP 2: 10.28 am 17.5 km

CP 3: 11.56 am 24.5 km

CP 4: 14.04 pm 34.0 km

CP 5: 15.49 pm 42.4 km

Finish:17.11 pm 50+ km

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