Written by Geoff Reed
Here's Geoff's first-hand report on this year's ultra.
The Gatliff of 2006.
On 26th November 2006.
A personal report by Geoff Reed.
A phone call on Saturday, the day before the event: from Catherine – she and her dad Dermod are going to do it again. I hadn’t heard and had thought it might be off their calendar. But I’m wrong: ‘we’ve been waiting a year for this’. Catherine should be in marketing: the enthusiasm. At the lunch stop on this year’s event she extols the joys of the MoB and MDS to some girls. And I find, to my surprise, at the last CP – CP 5 – that I meet Suze and several companions, including her boyfriend, from this year’s MoB, all invited by Catherine.
Edenbridge; early morning: in the club-house, waiting for enough light to start. I speak to Dick Ockenden – the chap who organizes each Gatliff. He’s pleased: ‘it’s going to be wet - some grade ‘A’ stuff’. The weather’s supposed to be kind – just a few showers – so what he means is the under-foot. He’s right. Throughout, but particularly in the first 20 k or so before we get to the hills of the North Downs, we have more than enough fields that are under-water. It fills the trainers, repeatedly: feet soaking for ages. But Catherine says how much better trainers are than boots: ‘it would have come over the tops of boots too and wouldn’t have poured out’: but with trainers it just empties out when you leave the water.
This year I wait until about 7.30 – I want good light to start. I’ll find out that this means the light at the end isn’t so good – non-existent in fact. But at the start I’m full of previous year’s times. Well, we learn. As I’m thinking of leaving, Dermod and Catherine arrive. A bit more chat, but after a little while I say I’ll leave. They’re faster than me. They’ve arrived a good two hours earlier than last year so they should finish in daylight easily this time. Right.
I’m off, through waterlogged fields. But the weather is mild and rain not forecast until the afternoon. Afterwards I discover how lucky we’ve been. Gillian recounts a dreadful day of heavy rain and thunderstorms in Kingston and worry about us doing the event in those conditions.
I feel energetic and quite fast, and enjoy the initial stages; though I know it never lasts. I decided to use hiking poles to pole myself along, as an experiment. They take weight off joints - increasingly important. But they got upset when they didn’t have my full attention - looking at instructions, drinking, or something - and they’d get in the way or tangle in my legs trying to trip me up. So the jury’s still out I think.
During the initial stages I find myself keeping to the route (this is the basic idea for all the event) and correcting other faster runners, who then say things like ‘we should follow this chap – he knows where he’s going and he can follow the instructions’. I’m well aware of the frailty of such judgments and tell them so – but it doesn’t protect me from come-uppance later. I chat with Martin Greaves again as he passes, partly about the poles. ‘We all have to do what we can’; and he speaks from the perspective of a multi-ultra winner who is pretty slow now.
As expected, Dermod and Catherine caught me; at CP1 – 7.5 k. The event had hardly begun. I looked forward to their disappearing ahead and finishing well ahead of me. They drifted about 100m ahead. Then a complicated junction. Suddenly I’ve a crowd behind me, including Dermod and Catherine and Martin Greaves. And Dermod’s voice: ‘is this the way Geoff, come on you’re the expert’. Well it was, and I was - that time. So they go by once more, and gradually disappear as expected.
I saw ‘Touching the Void’ the night before. There the seriously injured climber said ‘you have to keep taking decisions, even if they’re the wrong ones, or you’re stuffed’. So I do, even if they’re the wrong ones. I have my own first route-finding challenge: mistaking a count of stiles and so back-tracking briefly to take the wrong one. Weight of numbers, which I always doubt, convinces me to change my mind and they are right this time
It’s much later in the event when Dermod and Catherine pass me again – around 40k. They’d misread a road junction. We’ve all got tired. I’m aching a lot. The event is now a struggle. This time they don’t disappear as if they’re turbo-charged: they get ahead but stay in vision. I try to hang onto them - it’s an effort and I’d rather go slower, but it’ll be good for the pace, I think. Into a long dense wooded section, they just pass out of sight around bends. At an unclearly described four-way junction I follow the apparently advised path, expecting a left turn in 60m. None. Nor after 200m and no sign of them.
So I make a decision. I turn back to the junction and take the left hand, unclear alternative path. After 60m there is a left turn: very narrow, down into Rhododendrons, as expected. It’s a steep, winding, long descent. I startle a quail. It flies off. Odd. This path is overhung and seems little used. I should have thought more of that but I saw no alternatives. Eventually I emerge at a deep wooded basin at a bigger cross track. I turn right, uphill. No mention of this in the instructions, which said a stile and field.
It’s wrong. Maybe I can keep going and rejoin the route later. Fortunately I don’t. I hate the waste of effort and time I’ve got to undertake - all the way back up the winding path; and what happened to Dermod and Catherine? I turn back: dense undergrowth on each side. Where is the path I emerged from? Invisible. What do I do now? It was so narrow it takes time to find it but relief when I do and back up the long steep hill. To the junction – now I’m stuck for a decision. Fortunately a group comes along, ‘there’s someone else lost’. And leading the group is Dick, like a mother hen with chicks. He takes the original path. He’s not interested in my route-finding difficulty.
I approach CP 5 as Dermod and Catherine come away from it. We wave. They’re less ahead than I thought. But I never see them again until the end. Suze and her crowd are at the CP. They’re looking for Catherine. I tell them they can easily catch her. But they’re not in a hurry to leave. They’re having ‘a social day out’ they say. Others would go for a coffee.
I’m shocked to realize how much time has passed – I’m 8 hr 17 min into the event and only at CP 5 - 43 k. Still 7 km to go. At the pace I’m going it’s going to be dark well before I finish. And I’m not going to be going at that pace from now on am I? It could take another hour. What has happened? OK I got lost, maybe 20 minutes, no more; and lots of under-water fields; but no ploughed ones and I haven’t taken a tumble at all this year (you fool).
I brought a half-blackened toenail to the event - from the MoB. It seemed to be surviving OK and I kept banging the other foot. Lucky. Then I took an excruciating blow on the bad toe. Well, I thought, if that didn’t take the nail off, and the toe with it, nothing will. But it doesn’t seem to have done. The previous multi-colouring is now a dead grey, yet its still hanging on. However experts will know that things move slowly in the world of toenail loss, so we wait.
On a long concrete section after CP 5, Suze and her gang all jog by. The pain of running on the concrete is too much. I’m alone. Until, later in a field as it gets gloomy, Dick splashes by. I’ve put my head-light on, but reading instructions is now very slow. I switch it off and decide to try to hang onto Dick – it’s his event. He’s fast. It’s a struggle. It’s very dark. If he gets a gap he’ll be gone like Dermod and Catherine and I’ll be ages getting back. Another bridge approaches in the dark, a 30-degree smooth mud surface down to it. Dick takes it fine. I’m down before I know it. Mess everywhere. No time to clean: get after Dick. In pitch-blackness it’s a fraught last few km but I keep him in sight.
In the lights of Edenbridge I get a shock – 9hr 37 min – incredibly slow. The route was very hilly. But we’ve had much worse weather – we only had a couple of showers. I finish in 9hr 44 min, my slowest time by 40 min and far too close to the 10 hr cut-off. And without a tow from Dick I’d have been slower still. Am I so much slower now? Maybe this is getting to be too much. Dermod and Catherine don’t do much better – 9 hr 27 min. And they got a tow too – from Suze and her gang after they caught them.
Catherine says her Garmin has some unexpected information. The event was 56 km long. Twelve percent over the top. Dick always says it’s at least 50 km but this seems extreme. (But how do I know that it’s not always 56k?)
So are the showers. Extreme. The ladies’ are too hot to use safely and the men’s freezing cold – not just cold, icey. But the mud has to be got off. I get home stiff, aching, utterly lacking in energy, my head feels odd – loss of trace elements I guess.
‘Is that it’, as Rosencrantz said; or was it Guildenstern?. Yes, I guess that’s it. It’ll look better in the morning. ‘Distance brings perspective’ – Larkin – only he was being ironic.
Written in the immediate flush of after-event vividness, on the day.
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