id846-The Gatliff 2008

Written by GR   

Another fascinating episode in the Geoff Reed saga.

The Gatliff: November 2008

After my 2006 Gatliff in my slowest ever time, Mike May said: ‘I don’t know how many more of those you’ll be able to do’: with you on that Mike.

Still, back again: the ‘I don’t know where I’m going because it’s always a new route but I do know I’ll get covered in mud, be wet, cold, fall over and get lost’ event. Wonderful I hear you say. Well yes.

I did not book in advance – kept options open having wasted the 2007 entry fee. I missed 2007 with a back problem - first failure to complete for many years. A break in the sequence removed a talisman and left questions: was it now too far? Could I be bothered with the discomfort? Was it better to stop while ahead? Was I just going to keep trying until I failed? Was this likely to be the year? Would it further damage to my back? The answer to all these questions about life, the universe and everything - is of course, 42. But they encapsulate reluctance. It is extreme: cold, rain, thick mud, limited daylight, inevitable darkness; perpetual and justified anxiety about getting lost.

Gill woke me at 4.50. Away as planned by 5.30. Very cold: decided to wear all the race gear from the start - Helly Hanson top and bottoms, T-shirt, grey running top, leggings; two cagoules and rain trousers in the lightweight MoB ruck-sack. Edenbridge by 6.20 am – 32 miles; again briefly lost getting there. Parked as usual in the club-house car-park: supposedly forbidden but indifferent to this - much more convenient for afterwards.

While paying, someone thrust a little A5 yellow leaflet at me: ‘contrary to rumours there will be a Gatliff next year’: what rumours?

At the Edenbridge Rugby club-house (start and finish) I get my complaint in to the route organiser - Dick Ockenden early - to excuse failure. He was sitting watching the rabbits leave. Carrying his latest route in his head, he doesn’t have to figure out where he’s going, not like them. And if the instructions aren’t clear, no worry - he usually does it without any. So I told him: I couldn’t read the instructions without glasses so I may not be doing it again. Mmm.

I could read the instructions less when I set off in the dark; but starting in the dark is sensible if you expect to finish in it, as I now do. When exhausted and no longer thinking clearly, darkness is an extra you can do with less of. So off down the roads of Edenbridge on my own as usual (timed off by computer you can start when you like), wearing glasses and stopping to read the instructions by the street lamps. ‘This is very slow: I’ll be timed out’. But help was at hand. Daylight arrived; as did the rain.

Having dry feet for the first few miles is a reasonable hope. The farther you get before they get sodden the more luxurious. Not much luxury this year – soaking as soon as the first field.

I seemed to be going OK. In the continuous rain it was a relief to put away the glasses – lenses covered with rain made it more difficult to see with them than without. It felt like a reasonable pace. So why did I reach CP 1 - 9.9 km - after 1 hour 50 minutes? This translates to a ten hour time for the 50km with no allowance for getting tired, lost or CP breaks. This was not going to be easy. Away from CP 1 with a quick drink as soon as checked through.

I passed Jill Green early on but we joined up later. I tended to arrive at CPs first but she would leave them first; and I was the faster uphill but she had the edge elsewhere.

CP 2 seemed better timed - 20 km in three hours 25 minutes. We then felt more confident about finishing in the time and did so for hours. Until towards the end when time just disappeared and confidence was replaced by; ‘we’ll make it, we’re bound to’; and ‘surely we must – we’ve barely stopped all day and hardly gone wrong’.

The early part of this year’s route was blessed, as is usual, by ploughed fields: two or three in the morning. The first offered a choice: follow a trodden down path, covered in water, going uphill and with no traction, or go wide of that and pick up so much thick heavy mud on and in your shoes you can hardly move. The second field removed any difficulty over choice with no route through it at all: a straightforward ‘mud over the shoes’ job.

Those were standard hazards. The perpetual rain made them worse, but so far so normal. What you wanted was an imaginatively different barrier; and one duly arrived. Through a gap in a hedge into a field; but no, barring the way, a brand new barbed wire fence. It was obviously just laid. Firm new poles, ten feet apart, four tight strands of barbed wire: the lowest too low to get under; all too close to get between; the highest too high to stride over even for someone tall. All so tightly strung they could not be separated enough to get over, under or through. Briefly: ‘is this the end’? No wire-cutters – a useful kit item but the weight! The solution was to treat the tightly strung fence like a four barred gate. Up and over - I and others - went, slowly and delicately, holding a pole, swaying on the barbed wire, keeping your legs away from it: not as fixed as a barred gate. Torn leggings would be a curse in the rain; and what about the shoes? A good job there was no wind.

Coming along beside a wood on a hill ‘the path turns left 7m after swinging into trees’. Well, the turn was actually exactly where it swung into trees, but good enough. Down I went and on. A cry: ‘No’! Jill Green. This was ‘the wrong pond’. What pond? ‘See, through trees now the foliage has gone. When they were creating the route in the summer they won’t have seen that pond’. OK. I followed her but couldn’t relate what we were now doing to the instructions for a while; until ‘the pond’! A ‘get lost here’ section.

Eventually the event settles into a routine: regardless of who is around, keep reading the instructions and always know where you are in them. Many sections felt familiar. Not enough to know what was coming; the route includes new sections and mixes old routes. I thought: ‘this is a ‘nothing happening’ year’. But it was also a ‘you’ll remember that’ year. Jill kept saying ‘you’ll remember this’ and when I looked, I did.

The rain, having begun almost straight after the start, continued for several hours, at times pretty hard. A long heavy cagoule and hood went on early and three layers underneath plus hat and gloves and movement kept me warm for a while. Eventually, the left shoulder got pretty chilled and at the lunch stop I found out it was soaked. So I spent most of the stop putting a second cagoule on. Glasses and gloves got soaked but the latter were running gloves – little weight to hold water but a lot better than wearing nothing.

Soaking feet don’t matter until you tread again into water and they are suddenly very cold again. Gradually, after repeated soaking, the feet became more impregnated. You’d think that when they are completely sodden nothing further will change but it does. Eventually it felt much more uncomfortable than mere wet and cold: as if your feet are getting almost no support from the shoes and your feet are directly on the ground.

Lots of concentrating on staying vertical and not jarring the back. A couple of pain-killers early on and concern about having to take one every two hours. But back ache became matched by hip, ankle, calf, knee and other aches, so nothing untoward. In the slippery sections I concentrated on not falling rather than pushing the pace. And when running I concentrated on reducing ground impact rather than going as fast as possible. A result of all this was that, though after CP4 I began to feel weary, at the end I felt a lot more sprightly than usual – hardly tired at all. Two bananas early on may have helped. But nothing stopped me stiffening up as usual for days afterwards.

A non-waterproof cagoule left my shoulder wet and cold. Jill put her second cagoule on in the open air in heavy rain. Entertainingly neither of hers was waterproof – just like my two. But I didn’t want a long stop in heavy rain as I’d lose touch and so planned to put my second cagoule on at the next CP: ‘only’ eight km away, but a long time. The ‘Radlight’ rucksack is very light (especially as I was wearing virtually everything because of the conditions), but it is time-consuming to get off. A plus is that the front attached pouch helps to keep you warm with its wrap-around effect.

After the lunch stop (CP3: 28km, 5 hours 5 minutes: ‘we’re well in time’ – no we weren’t) the sky continued heavy and it was cold and damp, but no more rain. It was rarely warm and removing the hat or opening the cagoule counteracted any undue heat; and as the day drew to a close it got a lot colder.

Alone, and a short period of route uncertainty, after lunch. Then a period of enjoying being ‘on-route’ and finding my way until Jill’s red cagoule appeared ahead before I could get lost again.

Good distant views from the N Downs to the south even with the air misty. Particularly so while on a very steep grassy slope ‘downhill for 90m before turning left’ (never 90m, no more than 40!) and contouring along the same awful slope. On another section the instructions offered the chance to go briefly off-route to see Titsey Pace – a mansion. It was picture postcard beautiful, about a mile away on the slope in the dull light of the damp day. Returning to the route after a minute or two, no-one in sight so rushing on in the usual state of doubt for a while.

For much of the latter half of the event Jill and I were on our own: no-one passing us; as if they’d all done that. Jill kept expecting Dick Ockenden to pass but he didn’t. Everyone else seemed to have done so – and we became more alone than in previous years. I thought afterwards that there had been a jolly crowd at the lunch stop. What had happened to them? But many do shorter routes with the same lunch stop so probably…

I tell Jill my ‘lost couple’ story; to my surprise she didn’t know it. ‘One past year I am interrupted at a hedge by an aggressive woman with a male partner, waving instructions and shouting ‘they are completely wrong’. I do not respond: reading my own is enough for me. Coincidentally, up comes Dick. He looks briefly at their open instructions, says dismissively: ‘wrong page; remarkable you got this far really’ and we run off together; him muttering to me ‘some people just can’t do it can they?’’

In the dark after CP5 I put my headlight on and read out instructions as we trot, while Jill says reassuring things like ‘yes I can see the gap ahead’, and so we progress for miles.

This year Dick came in after us and said “that was hard”; unusual for him. He took nine hours – probably his slowest by some time. And ‘where is Brian Russell’ was eventually a question. He claims to have ‘completed all but not in the draconian (?) times required’. He’d started before us and Jill expected to pass him, but no sign. Lost? Then an hour after we’d finished, as I was going to the car, he came in – a good hour outside the time limit.

In some ways this ended up being an almost the perfect event. I hardly got lost at all – only once really and that only briefly; I did not fall down; CP stops were a very brief – a quick drink and away; even the lunch stop was barely ten minutes. And yet to finish within 20 minutes of the ten hour cut-off time! No time for anything to go wrong at all!

I thank Dick Ockenden as he is not organizing any more Gatliffs and he presses me for a retraction on my ‘no more Gatliffs’. I give him one: just words. The little yellow leaflet tells me that next year the event will start elsewhere. Further inquiries reveal the new start and finish has no showers – oh.

A week or so later and I try to look up the results on the web. The original site stopped in 2006: a sign that I should have stopped then? No 2008 results but I find 2007 results elsewhere. In 2007 Dick did it in eight hours, Jill in eight and a half and Brian Russell in nine. 2007 had been one of the easiest years ever! My grandmother could have done the 2007 route in less than ten hours. Typical: I miss the cushy year and come back for another dreadful one. ‘Dreadful’ is the norm though.

Still Mike, one more done.

Geoff Reed December 2008


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