Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Event Review : Gatliff

Gatliff Marathon: a relatively little-known event (if the response to my mentioning it to acquaintances is anything to go by) open to walkers, joggers and runners that's been going for 31 years. It's not strictly a marathon. There are three distances to choose from (20, 35 or 50k) and the aim is to complete your chosen distance within 10 hours. A combination of an inspiring talk by Robbie Britton and a lovely race report last year lead to me signing up and so last Sunday I found myself collecting a checkpoint card at 7:40am and setting off on what would turn out to be at least a 32 mile adventure.

I set off into a mild and misty morning with John and Ali from Orpington Road Runners, leaving my parents with promises of texts from each checkpoint. It was our aim to stick together for as long as we could, at least until the first of the five checkpoints on your route. We each had a copy of the navigation notes for the course. This is an unmarked, un-marshaled route and we had to rely on our wits and ability to interpret 11 pages of abbreviated notes in order to get round. It was a bit like being on Krypton Factor.
It wasn't long before we were to be found stood on a golf course scratching our heads trying to figure out whether a particular gate was the one being referred to and looking out for others waving pink papers around in the hope that they knew something we didn't. At this point I should own up to not really being prepared for what lay ahead. I knew we had to navigate but had avoided reading up on the terrain for fear it would frighten me too much. So the three train track crossings came as a bit of a surprise...
Wending our way across golf courses, fields, train tracks and stiles meant it was pretty slow going, compared with what I was expecting or used to in races. In fact we barely encountered any "civilisation" all day. Most of the route was on public footpaths, across fields and on trails. The upside to this was that we got some beautiful scenery but it was wet, boggy, slippery and hard going. It was soon clear that this was no race, it was an event and by the time we reached the first checkpoint with soaked and muddy feet our goals had been revised from finishing in 7 or 8 hours to just finishing at all.
Obligatory selfie at CP1
A washing up bowl seems a suitable receptical size for biscuits.
Card stamped, snacks consumed, photos taken and texts sent; it was off to checkpoint two. By now we were getting used to the instructions and so found it easier to pick up a bit of speed over fields and trail. Getting to checkpoint two was fairly uneventful, we didn't get lost and we probably confused a few golfers on our second golf course traverse of the day. More squash, biscuits, selfies and card stamping. It was at this point that Ali parted company with John and myself due to an ankle injury slowing him up. John and I set off together but we soon parted company too as I decided that a "fast hike" was going to be my pace for a while. I could see other Gatliff participants so wasn't worried about getting lost. Famous last words...
I'm not sure this sign was referring to us...
Runners are impatient beings. We like to get places quickly. We have times to make and goals to reach. As such we sometimes don't read things properly and make wrong turns. This is precisely what happened to me and four other runners between CP2 and 3 whilst trying to find some steps and a foot bridge. None of us had maps. None of us had a clue. Thankfully walkers tend to be a bit more sensible, especially gentlemen walkers. One of these gentlemen had followed us to where we stood confused and helpless. He was armed with maps and a GPS device and was able to get us all back on track. Thank heavens for hikers!
Some of the easier trail.
The going was fairly hilly and slippery at this point, as I recall, so I continued to march rather than run and took comfort from the messages of support rolling in on twitter (thank you ALL). I could feel myself flagging so CP3 was a welcome sight, not least as it was the lunch stop. Sandwiches, crisps, fruit, cakes, hot and cold drinks and seats to rest... a chance to refuel, pause a while and refill water bottles.
A small part of a big spread
By now I was over half way and in good spirits. I was able to pick up my pace a little here and there although I was still walking for the most part. The world seemed a brighter place. I'll be honest, I don't remember an awful lot between CP3 and CP4 apart from that my Garmin ran out of battery and I started to develop a nervous twitch when I read the abbreviations FD and XST (field and cross stile, respectively). My legs were getting tired of climbing stiles and I've got a fairly bruised left knee to show for not lifting my leg high enough on a number of occasions. But I jogged into CP4 with a grin on my face, not least because it was the cheeriest one so far with bunting and ladies in hats. It also boasted a fine range of retro crisps (including frazzles and chip sticks) and Garibaldi biscuits. These things make an impression when you've spent over six hours on your feet.
COPSE and robbers...
By now I knew I was going to cover the distance. I had 7km to cover before CP5 and then another 7kn to the finish. Easy. Heh. I skirted the M25, passed under the M25 and embarked on an assault course of stiles. I somehow seemed to be keeping pace simultaneously with a walker and a fellow runner which would prove very useful later on. The sun started to go down sending red streaks across the sky. The head torch went on and we were treated to a bit of civilisation en route to CP5. I don't remember feeling especially tired still, just a bit sore around the tops of my legs and achy in my feet. I only stopped long enough at CP5 to get stamped, text my parents and scoff a bakewell slice before setting off into the darkness again. I wanted to get this over with.

The runner I'd been keeping pace with was called John. He wasn't my original John, but a very welcome one. He stuck with me for the rest of the distance, which I can't thank him enough for. We got a bit lost shortly after exiting CP5 which is when our walker came in handy. A local guy, he was familiar with the area and rescued us from the bottom of someone's drive to point us in the right direction after which we exhibited another bout of runner's impatience, running off and ending up in a bog while Mr Walker ambled past us again. Tired, muddy, sodden feet and a tiny bit scared of being in fields in the dark... I knew I'd get to the finish but it couldn't happen soon enough. As a result I think I ran more in the final section than I had in any other and poor John2 pushed through with me. I was fed up of fields. I was heaving myself over stiles and cursing them. Sheep watched us stumbling around with eyes that lit up green in the beams of our head torches. The sheep unnerved me but my sobbing when I realised we still had another half page on navigation to go probably unnerved him more.

John2 had done Gatliff before though and comforted me by pointing out the beacons that were set out marking gates and gaps in hedges. A sure sign were were closing in. Sure enough we came back to Edenbridge town, through the church yard, up the high street and rounded the corner to the sports pavilion that I'd left some 10 hours earlier. Finishers already on their way home offered words of encouragement. I saw my parents stood outside waiting for me and shouted at them "I see you, I love you, but I must get stamped!" as a barrelled past in the vague hope I was under the 10 hour mark. Ten hours and seven minutes. I had in mind that if I was over ten hours I wouldn't get a certificate. I think I would have burst into tears had that been the case but no, I have a lovely pink certificate proclaiming my achievement. And I was still able to smile.
John2 was under ten hours, having started later than me and I heard that John1 also came in well under ten hours. Ali, poor chap had to pull out after about 22 miles because of his ankle but was still in good spirits when he came to chat to me as I scoffed the jam sponge, fruit salad and custard that was on offer to participants (alongside soup and sausage or bacon rolls).
Relieved and hungry
Finishers enjoying a well deserved rest in the pavilion.
So there we have it. I covered well over 32 miles (including detours) in just over 10 hours (including rest stops). I walked more than I ran, climbed a total of 69 stiles, walked through 3 bogs and raised a little more money for Hospiscare. Given my speed (or lack there of) I'm not sure if I am able to call myself an ultra runner but I completed the distance with only one blister to speak of and just minor aches in my legs, the worst being behind my left knee.
PJs and compression... oh so attractive
At just £7 for entry to the 50km (entry was just £5 and £6 for the 20k and 35k respectively) I have no idea how they cover their costs. The aid stations were wonderfully stocked and hot food at the end was a joy. Ok there are no route marshals but the route is different each year so no insignificant effort goes into planning that and drawing up the instructions (which were excellent, despite my errors). It is probably the best value event I know of and one of three that COPSE put on each year. COPSE looks like a great club for outdoor enthusiasts if you're in the area and I would certainly enter one of their events again.
Abandoned muddy trainers outside the pavilion.
Thank you to everyone who sent me a message over the weekend with words of encouragement. It made such a difference to the day and cheered me up when I flagged.

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