Monday, 13 June 2016

Event Review : Stour Valley Marathon

It's 6am on a Sunday. I'm awake, cup of coffee on the go and somehow in my running gear (have you any idea how difficult it is to get into lycra before 7am?). I have an hour and a half drive ahead of me, but I've allowed for two hours, to get me to Nayland which is on the Essex / Suffolk border about 10 minutes from Colchester. All this because I read a race report last year that made me want to run a marathon through the countryside.

The Stour Valley Marathon is a trail marathon through Constable Country following parts of the Stour Valley Path, Essex Way and St Edmund Way. It measures slightly short of 27 miles on Garmin devices and so could be classed as an ultra. It certainly would if you got lost, which is a real possibility as the course isn't marked. Instead participants are given a narrative route or can choose to download a GPS track for their Garmin devices. As my Garmin isn't fancy enough to handle that I was to be following the narrative version, not unlike that which I followed for Gatliff, my first ultra.
Parking and registration was a breeze and so I milled around with a cup of tea, wondering how quickly I'd need to lose the long sleeves and how my legs would react today, it being less than a week since my last marathon. There were only around 200 participants, so a small field, but many from the local running clubs. The advantage of being local is that you can try the route before hand, something that I appreciated not too far into the run. We started fairly promptly at 9am, heading out of the village and towards the first stile (thankfully there weren't as many as Gatliff). The first couple of miles were a bit bottle-necky as you might imagine, but we soon spread out. The plus side to this was that after the first mile I was roasting my my long sleeves and someone very kindly offered to hold my race vest while I peeled it off. Temperature was a big issue that day, rising quickly throughout the morning to hit around 25 degrees in the afternoon. The event has a seven hour time limit and as a slower runner I knew I'd need a lot of that time, so was running during the hottest part of the day. Beautiful, but hard going.
Pretty but no shade
As we wound through some enclosed footpaths I started to lose the people in front and had a mild panic about the instructions. As I stumbled through some undergrowth near a church thinking to myself "surely this isn't right" I glanced sideways to find a fellow runner taking a comfort break. Apologising profusely I stumbled on but as happens on events like this she caught me up and we started chatting, running together with another lady for at least half of the event. Being a local she was able to keep me on the (not very) straight and (very) narrow path, pointing out the footpath signs we should be following as well as views I shouldn't forget to look at.
A view. At the top of a hill. I didn't appreciate it as much as I should have.
Challenges on the course included the aforementioned stiles, footbridges, kissing gates, brambles, stinging nettles (how I came away unscathed from that I don't know) and rabbit holes you could lose a leg down. In addition there were crops to avoid trampling, ploughed fields that necessitated leaping from furrow to furrow as if on the moon, and hills. Oh the hills. In fairness there weren't that many but I took my ultra strategy of walking them all very seriously. Oh and cows, quite a lot of cows, with young, and a field with a bull in it. Mostly they moved out of the way but one seemed intent on guarding the gate I was trying to get to. I was never good at vaulting at school and I didn't have a sprint in my legs at that point so was glad it stood its ground rather than charging me.
I checked in with my parents at each check point, sending a quick text message home. They weren't with me today but amused themselves and cheered me up by sending me videos and pictures. Unfortunately I had barely any signal most of the time so didn't get them until afterwards but I appreciated them all the same.
Helpful photo from mum
There were four check points in total with an additional two water drops towards the end of the course. The checkpoints were attended by wonderful volunteers who plied us with lemon and orange squash, tortilla chips, biscuits, jelly babies, nuts and jaffa cakes. I had my own water and gels but wasn't going to turn down lemon squash or jaffa cakes, even the melty ones at CP4!
A local lady was standing outside her house, somewhere around mile 15 I think, with plates of orange wedges and chic chip cookies whilst some other kind souls had left a huge bowl of jelly babies outside for runners to help themselves to.
Looking at the scenery, deciphering and following the instructions and avoiding rabbit holes served as good distractions, stopping me from thinking too much about the distance I had left to go. In fairness I don't think it was until the last 6 miles that I started to get a bit fed up with it all, which sort of coincided with a mile stretch of very sloppy, muddy footpath that I just couldn't run on. That was hard going. But I was still managing to jog and my knee and hip flexors weren't painful, which had been my main concern. The between event massage, skins shorts and CEP calf sleeves clearly helped.
The hilarious tan lines you get when wearing shorts and calf sleeves.
The last two miles were the hardest. I wasn't tired as such, just weary, hot, achey, and in need of a lot of wet wipes to get rid of the grime and sweat build up. Oh yes it's all very glamorous this running malarkey. My Garmin also died around that point (I hadn't charged it fully) and so I wasn't able to check how far I had left to go. I started to recognise landmarks as I neared Nayland again. There were more spectators cheering and being very encouraging. I turned the corner back to the village hall and the finish line. Most people had already finished and were lazing on the grass with cold drinks, picnics and friends and families and on any other day I would probably have joined them but I'd had enough sun so after collecting my ridiculously huge meal (unexpected) I headed inside to find food and fluids. A huge spread was laid on for free for the runners and volunteers including sausage baguettes, salads, scones and cider. I nigh on inhaled my plateful! While I thought I was struggling in the last few miles it seems I was actually helping others. I was approached by a woman about 5 minutes after finishing who said she'd been following my blue socks for the last 5 miles as she couldn't focus on her instructions any more. I'm mighty glad I didn't get lost!
Post race meal. Cider was saved for later.
Once fed, semi clean and in fresh clothes I started the two hour drive back to my parents'. Tired, happy, sun tanned. I reckon I finished in around six hours, which isn't great but it's not dreadful. I had always intended to approach this as an experience, which it certainly was, and so finish time is somewhat irrelevant, especially in that heat.
Huge bling
Would I recommend it? Yes. Would I do it again? Maybe - although I'm sure there are others out there that would be just as cool to do rather than running the same route again. For £28 you really can't go wrong with this event. Small, friendly, special. Entries for 2017 should open in August...

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like my sort of race! A proper adventure, lots of friendly runners and support and then cider and food at the finish! One to look at for my race calendar next year.
    I hope your random tan lines start to blend soon! I had something similar last year when I stupidly varied the length of my running shorts over the Summer!