Monday, 12 August 2013

Cotswold Wahey!

It may be that a week has elapsed since starting this challenge, it may be the brain's way of reshaping events, so as to filter out painful memories, or it may be the two glasses of Pinot Grigio I've just swigged....whichever it is, I'm startled at how hazy my recollection is of the Cotswold Way Challenge. I suspect this blog will not do the 107ish miles of running justice...

Day 1 route map
Our parents had taken pre-emptive measures against our forthcoming exertions by encouraging us to double our body weight before departure, and so Matt and I waddled through early-morning Bath to the bus depot.  With great foresight, we stopped off at Boots to buy extra ibuprofen gel. Chat on the bus up to sunny Chipping Campden suggested that we were not alone in our multi-stage event inexperience. Many of the participants seemed to be seasoned marathon runners with a roady bias, looking for the next step up.

Luggage tags, race numbers and disclaimer forms were dealt with efficiently at the Old Police Station at Chipping Campden, and we gathered on a small green for a staggered start. To be honest I can't remember very much of this run, other than that it was gentle and pleasant, with rolling fields dotted with hay-bales, the occasional hill (the most memorable of which was topped with Broadway Tower, a favourite daytrip destination of my childhood), and several golden, lavender-scented villages, which gave me a hankering for tea and scones Miss Marple-style.

This was to become a familiar view.

The route ended a mile earlier than expected in 16 miles at Hailes Campsite, where we were greeted by rows of pre-erected tents, ice baths and a sports massage.

Not-My-Matt adding more ice.

I've never actually had a sports massage and was quite unprepared for the sheer brute force employed in unknotting those muscles. I was alternately bug-eyed in agony and chortling with laughter as Elaine the Physio squeezed my ticklish knees.

He likes pleasure spiked with pain, sports massage is his aeroplane...
Supper was a hefty portion of veggie lasagna, fruit pie and posh fruit juice, much of which had come from Hailes Fruit Farm. We opted for an early night, and I was asleep by 9.30, only to be awoken by the sound of lashing rain. I crossed my fingers (and legs) hoping not to need a wee. By morning my bed had deflated significantly, and feeling rather crumpled in body and spirit I tried to ready myself for the 27 miler ahead.

Day 2 route map
Some confusion at breakfast time resulted in Matthew over-ordering on the veggie option of eggs. He asked for three: one for me and two for him, and was presented with three very large platefuls of scrambled eggs. We chowed our way through as much as possible, which was fortunate as it proved to be almost the last sighting of protein for the next couple of days.

The weather defied the drizzly forecast again with glorious sunshine, and most of the runners set off together at about 8.45. The route featured a couple of steepish climbs early on, taking us past Belas Knap Long Barrow, and rewarding us with views from Cleeve Hill over Cheltenham. The trail wound through several sections of woodland, which offered cool, damp, dappled-green respite from the heat of the day. The original plan had been to stop at 17 miles at Seven Springs for a pub lunch and a pint, but reckoning we only had 10 miles to go, and feeling the lure of ice baths and massage, we decided to scoff our Giant Bars (Matt's calorie intensive favourite running snack), and press on.

Dermot O'Leary's twin brother.

O Flower of Scotland!

Matt and I have established that "seven miles to go" is a watershed point on a long run. It generally seems like a manageable / shuffleable distance, and (barring extreme terrain or severe decrepitude) you're likely to be home and dry within an hour and a half, so it was with a sense of confidence that we rocked up at the last water station three miles later. As we refilled our water bottles, a marshall cheerily announced "Only another ten miles, and you're home!" To which my response was something like "WTAF??!!" Probably uttered exactly so in acronym form as I was too tired for full sweary enunciation.

It's worth mentioning at this point that the event organisers were a little hazy on the exact details of the route and the distances between water stations. There could easily be a couple of miles leeway, which was frustrating, especially on the hot days when you don't want to be carrying too little or too much water. I got the impression that none of the organisers or marshalls were runners themselves, and their lack of familiarity with the route and the conventions of race/run support was surprising. I guess I'm used to races that have been organised by people who are running enthusiasts themselves, and therefore understand the importance of concrete checkpoints/water stations/support. That said, the helpers (especially the medics) were all kind, friendly and keen to help as much as possible...Charm goes a long way!

So, I rather grudgingly got the next three miles under my belt, and was back to the seven-miles-to-go point, toddling through soothing woodland. Unfortunately the route had a sting in his tail, and the last few miles included some sharp climbs and bewildering loops around Cooper's Hill, scene of the annual cheese rolling race. Apparently rolling actual cheese has now been banned, on account of it being too lethal, but going by this video, I'd say dairy products are the least of their worries: madness

Finally we plodded in to Cranham Scout Camp for a desperately needed ice bath and massage. Supper was "vegetarian bolognese"...a curious concoction of a tomatoey sauce with lots of courgettes, broccoli and babycorn. It looked insufficiently fattening, so I was forced to eat a VAST amount, followed by fruit crumble and ice cream. The general chat over dinner and a pint in the nearby Black Horse suggested that we'd got away relatively lightly with our 29ish miles...numerous people had taken wrong turns en route, and had thereby nudged their way into a 30+ mile day.

Day 3 route map

As Matthew and I feasted on a leisurely breakfast, everyone else seemed to sneak away early...we were among the last left in camp as I taped my blistering toes and packed my rucksack. Whether it was a result of an awkward sleeping position, or two days of lugging my little backpack up and down hills, I don't know, but an apparently innocuous manouevre while rolling up my sleeping bag resulted in an agonising twang in my neck. It really was eye-wateringly painful, and I spent a doleful fifteen minutes shuffling around the campsite in an attempt to loosen it up. After a liberal basting of ibuprofen gel, we headed on up the mile or so of tarmac back to the trail. Matt gallantly swapped my backpack for his waist-pack, which seemed to help.

Near the top of the road we were joined by a very chipper Matt Southam, last evacuee from the runners' village. His chat was a great distraction from my hurty neck, and we ticked along making good progress, blighted only by Matthew receiving a vicious and unprovoked bee-sting in the aptly named village of Painswick. Luckily the resulting break in proceedings alerted us to the fact that we had been starting to veer off course, so I grant a posthumous reprieve to Mr Bee of Painswick.

Matt and Matt.

Another hill...yadda yadda...

Back on track, we continued to skirt briskly through giant cornfields and woodland around Stroud. The Cotswold Way offers a couple of optional diversions on this section of the route. We decided to miss out the first optional longer path, and to see how we were feeling for the second diversion, which was near the end of the route and looked like a potentially scenic jaunt around a hill-top golf course. The small town of Dursley provided a convenient pit-stop. To my astonishment it wasn't yet 1pm; it felt like much later. Matt x 2 and I found a shop with our favoured sugary beverages, and headed on to the final hill. Buoyed with our glucose and caffeine hit, we felt reasonably fresh at the top, and because we are Rock Hard decided to bag the optional extra couple of miles. Matt J was in grim runner mode by this point, and pressed on wordlessly through the drizzle, while Matt S and I followed, admiring the tempting benches which overlooked the overcast yet impressive vistas.

With a satisfying 26 miles under our belts, we arrived in a rather chilly runners' village at Nibley House. An ice bath sent me almost hypothermic...or at least I was exhibiting the symptoms of shivering, poor coordination, mumbling and confused thinking. Okay, that's not far off the status quo for me, but Elaine the Physio did have to suggest things like "why don't you roll your t-shirt up in the ice bath so it doesn't get wet" and "why don't you wrap your jumper round your shoulders while you wait for your massage", and in my addled state this advice struck me as pure genius.

Iced and pummelled, we headed to the pub (another Black Horse, as it happens) for a pint of fierce scrumpy. I can confirm that it is an effective anti-freeze, and after a very enjoyable hour or so with Matt, Rosemarie, Luke and his homies, we returned to the campsite warmed but no less addled. Supper at Nibley House was dismal: a pathetically inadequate plate of pasta with a meagre coating of tomato sauce, sweetcorn and peppers. I tried to bulk it out with a dry roll (there wasn't even any butter!). Pudding was a bowl of bananas and instant custard. This place is a wedding venue, FFS...A generous runner took pity on our ravenous veggie souls and gave us some very tasty M&S nuts and raisins.

Matt and I were in bed and asleep by about 9.30, but were awake again by midnight due to the lashing rain, hunger, and (in Matt's case) throbbing blisters. I nibbled nuts and rasins and watched Matt perform spurty surgery on his toes. I was also desperate for a wee, but reluctant to hobble to the loos (a soggy three minute hobble from the tent)*. Dark times.

Matt's Hammertoe! (you can't touch this)

Day 4 route map

I can imagine now the Nibley House caterers discussing the meal plan for their horde of hungry runners. "What hearty sustenance can we provide as the last meal before a 33 mile run? Well, we can give them some bacon and sausage rolls! And what about the vegetarians? Maybe they'd like an egg or two? Nah, fuck 'em. They can make do with our almost inedible, tepid gloopy porridge." They might as well have given us this:

Fortunately, as you may now know, nothing fires me up for a good long run like unbridled rage, and so we struck out on our final voyage with gritty determination. It kind of goes without saying, but I was really quite stiff and achy by this point, and hoped that my bad mood would see me through the first 5-10 "loosener" miles. After only a few miles we passed Tom who was really suffering with his knee. Now Tom seems to be the sort of person who is unlikely to muster sufficient bitterness for blotting out the pain from a badly injured knee. Apart from anything else, he has a broad West Country accent, which has been scientifically proven to disable all grumpy cognitive processes. Awlroight baaabe? The best we could do was donate a fist sized glob of ibuprofen gel and hope he could bear the long, loooong walk to Bath. Astonishingly he did complete the route but to our great disappointment didn't make it to the pub aferwards. Hats off to you Tom, if you ever read this!

Miles 5-25ish were a low point for me. Everything was hurting, and I'd lost enthusiasm for the pretty landscape. Matt was still looking pretty sprightly, and I was struggling to keep up with him. Occasionally he'd try to engage me in conversation:

Matt: That's a great view, isn't it!

Me: <grunt>

time passes...

Matt: Do you want to put some more ibuprofen on that knee?

Me: Dunno.

time passes...slowly...

Matt: only 14 miles to go! That's only two lots of seven miles!

Me: <hmph>

We ran for a while with another few runners, incuding Matt Southam, and the camaraderie jollied me along a bit. At about 10 miles I'd decided to break out the paracetamol, which  I'd been holding in reserve as some sort of cure-all trump card. An hour later I was barely feeling any improvement, which I found disproportionately annoying. I plodded on, largely ignoring the scenery in favour of Matt's rear view. I feel like I could produce a detailed illustration of his leg anatomy even now. The rhythmic jog, jog, jog of his feet drew me onwards hypnotically, until we stopped for a break at The Major's Retreat in Tormarton. We treated ourselves to an expensive pint of coke, and scoffed our Giant Bars (we'd reserved the "Smoothie" ones with extra calorietastic yoghurty topping for the last day), and listened to the landlord expound with increasing frankness on the youth of today.
Giant Bars. Food for ultra-runners.

Eventually, at about mile 25 I started to perk up a bit, and by the time we hit the site of the Battle of Lansdown I was feeling quite positive: torrential downpour? Refreshing! Dawning realisation that the route was going to be 36 miles rather than the billed 33? No matter...we still only have seven miles to go! The last section was a long downhill drag with tantalising glimpses of Bath. As we hit the city streets we remembered that town pedestrians generally don't respond to a cheery "Hello!" in the same way as fellow hill-walkers in a rural setting. Or maybe we just smelled. The last couple of miles included a cruelly steep detour around the city centre before plunging down to weave among the tourists. Despite semaphor signals from the marshalls we still managed to approach the finish line from the wrong angle.

Matthew...he's no Helmut Newton.

Bath! Squeee!

According to my Garmin we totalled about 107 miles, with no significant navigational errors, over about 22 hours. And, just like that, it was all over. Well, apart from the walk to the chippy for a particularly fine fish supper and pint of ale...and then the walk to the YMCA to collect our huge heavy bags...and then the walk to our hotel...and then the three flights of stairs to our room (no lift!)...and then the walk back to the Pig and Fiddle for cider and reminiscing and occasional applause as more runners and walkers joined the throng.

So...who's up for a West Highland Way weekend next year?!


* in case you're wondering, this was resolved by a meticulously accurate aim, a small cup and a complete lack of dignity.