id340-The Gatliff 2005 - The Report

Written by Geoff Reed   

Hot off the press!

The Gatliff 50 Km route: 27th November 2005.

Another year, another route: this time starting north, then east, south and west, to return to Edenbridge from the south. But something always begins a little before - anticipation and apprehension. Not about what to take or wear. No real worry either this time about whether I could do it; though failure is always possible - it is long and hard. No, this year the worry was: would I get to the start at all – with the expected freeze, in the dark, on narrow roads and down Crockham Hill. In the event, no freeze and an easy drive.

Some expected entrants from the Club didn?t materialise this year: very sensible. I may find the event easier than pounding along on a road marathon but that?s me. But I still was not doing the event ?alone?. Two familiars would start behind me: Catherine Reed, a Club member, and her father Dermod Sweeney. They intended to start between 8.30 and 9.00. And with their road marathon speed and fitness I expected them to pass me - a slow hare to their hounds - but I didn?t want it to happen too soon.

What else was unusual? Well, check-point 5 had had to be moved at the last minute and a separate insert describing the change was supplied. It was not clear. I asked an organiser who said; ?the route is unchanged just the CP is in a different place?. That?s OK then.

When I started at 7.30am conditions were not harsh by comparison with some years – cold but little wind, no rain, relatively dry underfoot; and all that continued. During the first few km I always pass a lot of walkers – now some on shorter routes. Eventually they thinned out and I was alone for a while. So when, over a style I caught a small group, their question: ?have you just passed another four a little way back?? confused me. They followed up: ?we?re together?. ?Not any more you?re not? I thought; but said something more comforting, though equally useless: ?I think they?re quite a way back now?. And left them behind too.

Amongst the features of the route was this year?s obvious present for landowners - joke ?beware of the bull? signs. Two greeted you at styles to different fields early on. But it was OK; having bought the signs they must have found they couldn?t afford bulls as well.

The route also included a couple of fields helpfully ploughed a day or two before - to give you that special joy of wearing nine-league boots by the end of each and carrying gluey mud inside and out for ever after. Only two of these this year and I was still recording fast times to the check-points; so it was going well. To my surprise I was 7th at CP 2, 10th at CP 3 and still 16th by CP 4; and I hadn?t yet been caught by my hounds. Only now I was beginning to want to see them. I?m not fast and was now getting passed frequently: so they were becoming due.

Getting lost is normal but can be unpleasant. I was doing fine though for the first 24 km. Only when I hooked up briefly with Martin Greaves, a veteran of hundreds of these events and a winner of loads, did a problem arise. Martin, naturally, treats instructions with the cavalier disdain of a connoisseur. Still, I followed him down a field without going too far off-route. We avoided a large pool and only had to jump a stream, take the necessary compass bearing and climb the next hill. Martin was, naturally, compass-free (he seemed to be carrying nothing) and contentedly intended to skirt the wrong house until I called him back. Even so, having begun the climb off-route we missed a gap in the hedge and had to find a way, unknowingly, through some private land to get back to the route. Out came the owner and Martin?s expertise came to the fore. He said something respectful and just kept running, leaving me to explain. Mollifying the owner by showing him the instructions took little time - I was still doing OK - but I never saw Martin any more. [O1]

The instructions can be repetitive, so you lose the line or paragraph you?re on. Lots of: ?RHS or LHS FD XST? repeats. And when a different feature – a bridge – arrives, we manage to have three in quick succession to help you lose that too. It all dulls the senses, like a mantra. That must be why, suitably dulled, I went seriously wrong twice in quick succession.

First: ?at JCTN with obvious large tree, T sharp L on wide FP?. In the wood I missed this, for two reasons: the tree was actually quite small (as I saw on my return later) and the ?wide FP? wasn?t that wide. The left turn was sharp; but come on, one out of three? So I continued uphill for a long way, took a forced left onto a really wide path and ignored the lack of a suitable tree there too. I went through an orchard and a quad-bike went past. Doubts suddenly reared up. This was no path: it was a track; and an orchard would surely rate a mention; and no large tree? I couldn?t have wasted all this time? Oh, but yes. I remembered my ?greenhorns? guidance and turned around reluctantly - a long, frustrated, way back. People I?d been chasing were now long gone and I was back amongst others I?d passed ages ago.

Almost immediately (in Gatliff terms that is – a couple of lines later) the changed CP 5 arrived. Or didn?t. I went through the farm, following the instructions, and then couldn?t make any more sense of them than I had before the start. Completely at a loss what to do, I turned back, with others, through the farm again. And on the other side of it, at ankle height, a small white notice announced the route to be directly away from the farm, not through it.

There are no notices on the route in the Gatliff: it?s a given! You?ve got your eight sides of instructions and that?s all. So who is going to waste time looking for small notices at ankle height in the middle of nowhere? Even so, this one was a relief.

Now it was no longer going so well: a good 15 minutes wasted and perceptions suddenly changed. I was supposed to be an expert and if I could get badly lost, might not Catherine and Dermod, mere novices, get lost a lot more? Where were they?

After CP 5 - a horse-box - I spent the last section (6.4 km, but only four paragraphs) trying to get back to a couple I?d been with (at a struggle), but who had somehow got 200 yards ahead. Now it was stop-start running, on a wide deeply rutted grassy path. Pretty slow, but mainly flat and with long views, so I could see them well ahead. Onto a last page of only three paragraphs; round field edges, over more styles, bridges. Across a grass airstrip and into the last para; but closer as we passed pill-boxes. Onto the rugby fields leading to the club-house, I knew I could get close and thought belatedly of passing them (pointless as we?d started at different times). So I did, to their cheers, and finished - at 4.03 pm.

Now what makes it all worthwhile? A warm shower and refreshment. This year, the men?s showers were icy cold and the women?s scalding (I?m told). You?d have thought some sort of communication? well maybe not. So, the shower – still necessary – was awful. But the food was good. When I?d done it was dark: 5pm and still no sign of Catherine and Dermod. I hadn?t seen Dick Ockenden, Tim Styles, nor David Wakeling either. Maybe they?d all missed it this year. Then I saw David?s certificate, with it?s ridiculous five-hour time; then Dick being chirpy. They?d gone past while I was off-route.

The hall was beginning to empty. The organisers had a lot of packing and tidying to do and got on with it. After a while hardly anyone was left. Catherine and Dermod?s absence was a worry. I asked the computer recorders how many were still out. ?About 20?. I kept going out, looking into the dark: completely black - no moon. Torch-lights would appear through the dark and people would suddenly arrive next to you; but never them. I asked the recorders when they had started: ?9.34?. Later than expected. So they had until 7.34 pm to make the ten hour limit. By 6pm: ?fewer than ten out there?. Then ?only three still going?.

I asked Raynet what they knew. To my surprise they monitored everyone through the check-points. They said Catherine and Dermod had been ?doing a steady 5kmph since they?d started?. (Not quite fast enough to finish in the time.) As we spoke, the three reached CP 5 together: ?one retired; the others are going on?. It was 6.25: they?d have been pushed to make it in daylight. Inky black over the rugby fields; broken only by two yellow beacons, amongst a number put out to guide night finishers home.

Seven pm came. And went. Outside, nothing: for ages. No movement, no light, no sound. A faint white light came and went in the blackness. It came again – moving to the left. I called, feeling a fool. It kept moving. Gradually it became stronger. I called more. After an age, two figures about 30yards away sprinting to the club-house.

Inside to record their finishing times. The computer was gone and we had to use the club-house clock – 7.17 pm – and give them on paper to an organiser tidying up. But certificates awaited, needing only the addition of times – someone had been confident.

Apparently, far from doing ?a steady 5 kmph? they had been getting lost all the time and running all over the place. They had covered, according to Catherine?s wrist-GPS, about 35.6 miles and had done at least the last quarter of this in darkness. If they decide to use more daylight in future and learn how to follow a route, who knows?

I introduced them to Dick – I thought they should know who was to blame. Dick encouraged them to do it again and Catherine was her usual enthusiastic self – they?ll probably feature in Dick?s write up.

Geoff Reed


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