Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Ox Ultra (35 miler)

                                           Nice long sleeve t and massive bling

            So Rob Kelly is my old coach from my running club, Lordshill road runners. He sends me a text one night: "Wanna do this race called the Ox ultra?". I google it and sure enough there is such a race and it's run by some people under the name of "White star running". Never heard of them? Me neither. Anyway, looking at their website you can tell that they are totally clued up and well organised. It didn't take me long to reply to Rob and tell him I was in. I was dying to do another ultra after the Thames trot in Feb. We both entered without too much thought and one day I thought i'd do a bit more research into the race and maybe read something.
It was going to be the first time that this race had ever been held and there was roughly 4000ft of ascent! Oh dear. I spoke to Rob and told him about the elevation and what a nice job he had done on picking his first ultra marathon race. It really didn't matter, I was still so excited.

   View from the car park, registration and close to start. Yes, that's part of the course down there!

          Anyways, Rob picks me up at 6am. We had been discussing food, hydration, maps etc..
We were really well prepared, apart from the lack of training but I told him to treat it as an adventurous day out. Time did not matter. Neither of us had a 35 mile pb yet.
The Race is on an estate in a place called Tollard royal where they hold the Larmer festival. It's kind of between Salisbury and Shaftesbury I think.

         We get there with plenty of time to spare and go to collect our number. It's bloody cold and very windy on top of this big hill. There were three events on today. There was the 35 ultra, the marathon and the half marathon. We queued and the man asked "Ultra?". We said yes and then I made a joke as it reminded me of that bit from the Monty python film, the life of Brian. "Crucifixion?". "Eh no, freedom.."

          We had a good race briefing with some great humour in there and then headed over to the start. This was it, we were ready. Just after 8am, we set off in the cold wind. I was hoping it would get warmer as I was only wearing a t-shirt and didn't bring a base layer or even a coat in case it rained. It looked like it might rain at the start as well.
Lots of runners were chatting and exchanging stories as we ran on the uneven, bumpy grass. I was concentrating on my footing as i didn't want to roll an ankle on the first mile. After the first mile or so we started to head down the hill and around a corner and then before long we were rising up again. it was time to walk up the steep hills.

                                                Hiking up one of the hills

        It wasn't too long before we were nicely spaced out. I loved the fact that the scenery and terrain were changing all the time. No chance of getting bored on these 35 miles! We would be out in open fields on the grass and then running through shaded woods on trails. Later it was be a nice country traffic free lanes with amazing landscapes. 6 miles at the start just flew by. We were told that it would be roughly 36 miles today as they had diverted the course to avoid some flooding, or a 4ft deep puddle as they put it.
We were still going to get wet feet though. We passed through farms with cattle, there were sheep and pigs on route as well. We also spotted a bird of prey hovering overhead in the later miles.
The aid stations were fantastic and so were the marshals. You were allowed bag drops for your stuff. Rob and I decided to share bags. We left one bag at mile 13 and one at mile 25. We had put so much food in there and we didn't even touch any of it as there was food at the stations. Pork pies, savoury eggs, jelly beans, party sausages, chocolate, even sandwiches and watermelon! They really had treated us well. Every marshal was enthusiastic and spoke to us. Making jokes and encouraging us along.

                Food station around mile 16 and 21? We were so grateful for the coca cola

      We had got to the place above. I think it was mile 16. Anyway, when we got there the leader was coming in the other direction. He had covered around 5 miles more than us already!
There was a bit earlier in the race that I had forgot to mention. We came to a wooded area where the yellow arrow was pointing left. We went left and came across lots of confused runners. No-one knew the way. We were all lost. One guy told us he was 4th at one point but had now ran 16-17 miles. We had only ran 12.5. Poor guy. Someone had tampered with the sign and we should have taken a right turn. The sign had been moved by someone.
There were plenty of theories of angry dog walkers or motocross riders. It didn't really affect us but I felt sorry for the other guys who were racing this. The organisers were very sympathetic and assured us that this would never happen again.
Apart from that, the whole 35/36 miles were so well signed and marshalled. In fact, it was faultless apart from the obvious that happened.

                             Rob and I enjoying the scenery and a bit of slight downhill

       We had run through some mud, but not a lot. We had also ran through some puddles now as well. Our legs were aching and we had wet feet. We had decided on a nice long pit stop at mile 25 so that we could refuel, change our socks and a change of t-shirt for me. About 5-6 minutes we stopped for and it felt well needed. We chatted to others and shared blisters etc.. That rest and the clean socks and T-shirt was brilliant for our spirits. We were felling great again and ready to attack the last 11 miles of so. I was struggling a little bit in the woodland earlier, so when we hit some open road, it was much appreciated by myself.

    I had told Rob that this is what happens. You run so far and your legs ache and they keep on aching but after a while you become desensitised to that feeling and it becomes the norm. We did a celebration whoop as we reached mile 27 as it was the furthest that Rob had ever ran. We were ticking off the miles now. I said at the start that we are only doing 5x 7 mile runs.
I always do the same at races. Tick off the miles. 10k done, 10 miles done, half mara done, 20 miles done, 25, 30 etc..

                        Beautiful views ahead and i'm not just talking about the ultra ladies!

      The next thing we were looking forward to was the "Love station". White star running knew how to organise an event. At 32 miles there was the Love station. At this station there was cider from a brewery in Wareham and Vodka! Now that was worth visiting but even more so, we were very low on water and it was hot in the heat now and we were getting a little dehydrated. I was a little dizzy at mile 30 and made Rob walk for a bit as i had to fight off a panic attack. Seems to be a common thing for me in the 30 mile zone for some reason. i knew it would pass in a couple of minutes. Fuss over and we were running again.

We spoke to more runners as we got nearer to the finish. We even passed a few who were now looking tired and walking, we were also passed by some as well though. There must have been about 6 miles where we ran and never saw another person though. That's what makes ultras so good. Not overcrowded and if it is, it will only be at the start. Little did we know after the event that there were on 75 runners! I thought there were a lot more.

                                      Another very memorable part of the route.

       Rob got stung a few times by the stinging nettles. Made me laugh every time he got stung as I was wearing running tights. He reckons the Dock leaves worked but they've never worked for
We knew there was a big hill to come at the end but just before we got there we met a guy called Nick from Bournemouth. We got chatting and ran together for a while. The marshal warned us about the hill and so did some local villagers. I high-fived a little kid who was holding his hand out and then we turned a corner and saw a sign saying "Up". We were here. Then there was another sign saying "The Hill" and underneath it said "Sean Connery". I was confused by this but Nick explained that the hill was a Sean connery film and it was very good and also Sean Connery's favourite. (i'm yet to check it out).
When we got to the "Up" sign. I told Rob i'd take a photo. He got on his knees and I said he had to try and look like the dude on the cover of the film "Platoon". (not a Sean Connery film).

                             Platoon would never had sold any copies with this cover!

        Not only is the hill too steep to run up but it's also covered in thick, gooey mud. We get to the top though and even though we're on grass now, we still seem to be climbing. What a view though! We keep going and we know we are nearly there. The excitement is overwhelming. We see Rob's wife Kim who cheers us on. Me, Rob and Nick all run together and finish together. There was no race here, we were proud to all finish together. We ran in to a big cheer from the crowd and I watched the big digital clock tick away. 7 hours and 44 minutes! Rob was thinking 5 hours at first. I was think more 6 or 7 hours. We were pretty sure at mile 18 that we would get a sub 7 hour time. Seems crazy as we are both around 3.30 marathon finishers. Just goes to show you how tough this course is.

                               Nick, Me and Rob. Photo taken by Rob's wife Kim.

     We had lovely showers and I ate 2 cheese burgers as Rob didn't want his. The cheese burgers and baked potatoes were free to the ultra runners. Rob already said he wanted to run it again next year and I agreed. This is a must do race. One of the most beautiful, well organised with very friendly people. I can't wait for next year. Sub 7 next time! Not bad though as none of us had trained for it. Took me 3 days to walk down the stairs properly and i've just put a hot needle through my black toe nail but all worth it :)
                               This photo was taken by a photographer on the course.                                       All photos are free and everyone at the event shares their photos for free. What a great idea!

Monday, 5 May 2014

30 miles: From Southampton to Salisbury

                                          (Me about to leave my house at 6.45am)

            I'm not sure why but i've always wanted to run to Salisbury. A lot of people get killed on the A36 just trying to cross it, so I had to find an alternative route. I thought maybe through Sherfield English or Wellow. Then I got this book about the Clarendon way. The Clarendon way is a 25 route that runs from Salisbury to Winchester from one Cathedral to the other. I thought about getting a train to Salisbury and doing this but I like to get out the door running pretty early.
I also have a book on the Testway. The Testway is a 50 mile route from Eling Wharf to Inkpen Beacon. However, I was not very confident that I would succeed as I tried to run some of the Testway before and it's not always well signposted. Last time I had only got as far as Squabb wood when I took a wrong turn and ended up in somebody's back garden. I was then in Shootash and ended up in East Wellow somehow! This time though, I did a bit more planning and wrote down some directions from the internet.

             So I get up early, eat my crunchy nut cornflakes and pack my trail backpack. This included: A map, vaseline, socks, 2x t-shirts, shorts, a flapjack, 2x cereal bars, Lucozade sport and water, Mobile phone, wallet with money in, keys and some toilet paper. My phone and compact camera went in a bumbag/fannypack along with some of my written instructions.
   A cup of coffee later and i am out the door running. The sun is shining brightly but it's chilly and my hands are cold. Should have worn gloves maybe? Nah, it'll soon warm up after a mile or so I think.

    I run to Lee but decide on the shortest route possible, so I ran on the main road to Romsey and take the second exit on the roundabout. I was only able to do this as it was so early and therefore would be very little traffic. As soon as you get to Lee you leave the busier areas of Southampton and hit Lee lane. Lee lane can be quite boring as it's just long and flat for about 3 miles. It's a lovely day though and i'm enjoying the adventure and the not knowing what is to come.

                                    (one of the ways into Lee via the railway bridge)

         I get to Romsey (pronounced Rum-sey) and tell myself that when I get to Sadlers mill I will take out my phone and wallet from my bumbag cos it's too heavy and needs to go into the backpack. I turn left after the so-called "mile long wall" and then i'm at the River Test and onto Sadlers Mill. This is a lovely place with a fast flowing stream and some nice wildlife. Not far from hear is Romsey Abbey which is worth a visit if you haven't already seen it.
I take off my backpack, take some pics and drink some water. 6 miles done already!

                               (A female Grey Wagtail on the wall by the Mill)

      The first time I tried to find Squabb wood I got lost and just walked around in circles. In fact, it took me ages to find the path to the left behind the houses. Typical of the Testway, not signposted. On the way to Squabb wood there is a big field to walk across. This happened to be water-logged, which I wasn't expecting. Just over 6 miles in, finally on the Testway and I have wet feet already.

                      (To the right, Romsey Abbey. To the Left, Burnt wood and Squabb wood)

I get to Squabb wood and there is so much mud. As I am tip-toeing around the bog I check out all the wildlife. Great tits, Blue tits, Woodpeckers etc.. My white trainers which were wet are now also muddy. I still continue slowly. I am trying my best to choose the best paths with less mud when this (proper) runner comes along and just runs through all the mud at a good pace and just shouts a good morning at which I reply accordingly. What a hero. I felt like a right girl So, I manned up a bit and trudged through the mud. Would have lost trainer if my laces weren't tied so tightly.
All is well as I take a right turning instead of the left turning I took last time and came to a field with pigs everywhere. I also get startled when a deer gets startled. We startle each other but she jumps high into the woodland as I just stand there watching. Straight on or Right? I ponder on this and get my instructions out. Finally I see a testway sign but wasn't easy to spot. I head straight on past the pigs and come out on the Old Salisbury road.

                        (The second field just before Squabb wood. Head north west)

         There are two more fields when you cross the road. Not much to see in these. On the second field you have to turn right and onto a track that leads to a farm. This is where I saw two more deer in a field but they had already seen me, so the pic I got wasn't too good. I tried to run after the deer but of course they were too fast for me. It was nice to be running again as this was the first dry, even ground since leaving the Mill.
        I came out to a cottage and a road. It was another case of just crossing the road and following a path behind some houses. The path was narrow and my legs weren't enjoying the warmth of the stinging nettles too much. Ouch! I got a good one right on the calf muscle. I rubbed a Dock leaf on it even though I know for a fact that they don't work. It was something to do anyway and made me feel like Bear Grylls or something. Using my survival skills in the   Then there was a beautiful lake to the left and a scenic path with bluebells covering the whole area on both sides. It was amazing to see under the trees. The pictures do not show its true beauty. You really need to go there.

                              (The wonderful Bluebell woods near Awbridge)

    I then come to another road where I turn right and run for about a mile. This is Awbridge (pronounced A-Bridge) What a great place and I didn't even go to the main part of it. I just continued on to Kimbridge which I never really got to see either as I turned left before the railway track and back into the woods. On my way to Mottisfont now and I get to a footbridge which has the river Dun flowing under it. I meet my second person of the day and have covered 11 miles roughly? You hardly see anyone on the Testway, it really baffles me!
I chat to the dogwalker who is local to the area. We spot a Buzzard and watch it hover and circle around in the sky. He tells me the type of Buzzard it is but I can't remember. I keep thinking "Light-headed Buzzard" but that would just be a drunk one wouldn't it? I tell him i'm running to Salisbury and that I want to get from the Testway to the Clarendon way. I haven't really worked out a route for this. I just knew that I wanted to head for Broughton. I get my map out and he explains in detail to turn left at Mottisfont church and not right and then to Broughton that way. He confuses me a bit with his over elaborations but I nod and take in the basics that I think I need to know.

                                           (The crossing of the River Dun)

     I come out at the Church and take a look around. I eat a cereal bar and take on more fluids. There are a few rabbits in the grounds of the church and some more birds. Turning right would have taken me to Mottisfont Abbey and I know it's lovely but I don't want to end up on the Stockbridge road. I take the left as suggested and I get to the testway path again but instead of turning right this time, I go straight on like the man suggested. I was now able to run at a decent pace for the next two or three miles. It was just a country road and so isolated and quiet with great views of fields afar. I couldn't even see the Stockbridge road even though I was probably running parallel to it.

                                                 (On my way to Houghton)

        I get to Houghton (pronouced Hoe-ton and not How-ton). I look lost and smile at some dog walkers as I run by. I find an entrance to the Clarendon way. I stop and think though. I think to myself that this is probably the wrong way for Salisbury and will probably take me to Winchester. Luckily I get the map back out before deciding to not to run down there as it's the wrong way. There should be another way on the otherside of the road and i've already passed it somehow.
I run back but can only find a dead end road with something about an estate on it. I ask a local old lady. She says it's the right way but doesn't seem too sure and her dialect wasn't very decipherable. I ran up there anyway where I got talking a to a man and a lady who were coming from the opposite direction. I tell them about my journey and they tell me I have 14 miles to go to Salisbury. I thought it would be further than that to be honest. I thought it would be about 30-35 miles when I got there. I had already done just over 14 miles. They said they walked the Clarendon way regularly but had never done the whole 28 miles as they said. They congratulated me on my efforts so far and the guy made a joke about me running the 14 miles. I said goodbye and started running and he shouts "Should only take you an hour". We all laugh and I continue along the bumpy gravel track.

                                   (Finally on the Clarendon way at mile 14)

                     I walk up the hill and can feel the sun beating down upon me. Better drink more water and eat some flapjack. I'm not hungry though and only manage two small bites of the flapjack. I know I must eat though and will try again within the next few miles to eat some more.
I walk down some steps and cross a road from one field to another. I had been on the Clarendon way for about three miles and this was my first time on here. I thought to myself that it's really not that interesting in comparison with the testway. What it lacks in mud though, it makes up for in hills! It just didn't seem as picturesque as the testway. Just lots of fields with obvious paths. There were more people on the Clarendon way but maybe this is because it's more accessible and person friendly. Maybe it will get better though.

                                 (Just after the big hill of Broughton woods)

         I made it to Broughton (pronounced Brow-ton) I walked up a very big hill and chatted to an old lady who said there was a bigger hill nearby if I fancied walking up that one. She had a great sense of humour for an Octogenarian. Once at the top of the hill I took in the views and started running again. As I found my rhythm, I started chanting to myself "Those octogenarians have a great sense of humour, those octogenarians have a great sense of humour...". Don't ask me why, cos I don't I'm not mad, honest!

                                            (More woodland on my way to Buckholt)

           I get to Buckholt farm and then can't make up my mind if I go Left or straight on. Straight on didn't look right to me as it was just a big downhill road. I got the map out and it looked like a straight line to me. Straight on it was. I let a tractor pass me and zoomed down the hill. Nice to open up the stride and stretch the legs a bit. I passed two walkers and said hello and then another uphill section of course. The stretches of road were so rare that it was so nice to run when you got on one of them. Still, I was loving this adventure and was having the best time of my life.
         Next up was Winterslow. There was Middle Winterslow and West Winterslow. I had actually found a shop in Winterslow at mile 22. I was hungry but didn't fancy any sweet stuff. It was then I found the ultimate running fuel... A giant porkpie. I devoured it quickly and drank a ribenna. I was feeling refreshed after that and ran on happily.

                      (The pathway was covered in little cute Lambies just past Winterslow)

      The Lambs were adorable. Most were a bit weary of me but some didn't mind at all. I had to walk across this field as I didn't want to scare them all off. Just after this I had to run behind a skatepark, through a muddy cutway and then through to some more fields of yellow stuff. This is where I got properly lost and choose the wrong pathway towards Pitton. Instead I ended up on a main road but there was a sign for Pitton. This gave me another excuse to run some more comfortable road miles into Pitton. I got some weird looks from the locals as they had probably never seen anyone running down this middle-of-nowhere road before.
I made it to Pitton safely anyway and got chatting to a rambler. He was a Hypnotherapist who had been to see his daughter near Clarendon but he lived in Romsey. We exchanged quite a few stories about our adventures from the past and we even talked about ultra-runners. I thanked him for the much needed break, he directed me the right way and we shook hands and said goodbye. What a really nice guy he was.

(Just before I went the wrong way. Think I should have turned left instead of right here)

              I entered Clarendon woods and there were a few crossroads but the Clarendon way was well signposted here. It was straight on all the way and then I got to the Llamas that the Hypnotherapist was telling me about. Sounds a bit like Alice in Wonderland here doesn't it?
Anyway, here I was at Clarendon palace, in Clarendon woods. This place has a lot of history and was built by the Saxons. Henry II has also been hanging out there etc.. I have read a lot about the history of the Testway and Clarendon way and it fascinates me. However, despite all the history the Clarendon way has, there really isn't all that much to see. I was having a great journey regardless. What was I expecting? A bloody theme park? It was nice to see the Llamas looking very relaxed without a care in the world. Some of them were rolling around on their backs, whilst others grazed in the shade under a tree.

                                         (Clarendon Palace. No Thorpe park is it?)

        Right, I must be close to Salisbury now right? But I still can't see any sign of the cathedral. Salisbury cathedral is massive, if you didn't know. I kept on going and finally there was a viewing point when I came out of the woods and down a dirt track. I could see it. I was confident that I would make it easily now. I was feeling stronger and full of self belief. Not that I had much doubt but it's nice to be reassured.
I ran down the track and onto a field with the Cathedral still in sight. 27 miles done. I'm nearly there... and then I get a beep from my Garmin watch. Low Battery. Right, I want to achieve one of two things if I can but both would be better. I want to either make it to Salisbury with the watch still running or I want to record 30 miles before the battery dies on me. This actually made me speed up but I was still happy to take pictures on my compact camera.

                (A beautiful moment. Salisbury not faraway and a bit of downhill running)

        I head onto the main road, turn right after some indecision and run through Millford. There are now lots of people around and it feels weird as i've been surrounded by peaceful countryside for the majority of 7 hours. It's busy here and getting busier as I head into Salisbury town centre. Kind of reminded me of the 50k race I did on the Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1. You've run 30 miles and then you have to try and dodge all the shoppers which is tough as your concentration levels are so bad at this point. I found it easier to run down the middle of the road and dodge the traffic instead. I'm not even sure if i'm on the Clarendon way anymore. I'm just heading for the Cathedral now. The city is built up though so the cathedral is not visible from here. There will be signposts though, there has to be. I see a sign, run through an archway and I am almost in the cathedral grounds. 29.5 miles. I've made it! I run past the cathedral though as I want to finish at 30 miles. I turn left, hit the 30 mile mark and stop my watch. I get my breath, look up and see a signpost for the "Avon Valley Path". Ha. Maybe next time I think to myself.

                                       (Salisbury Cathedral. An amazing sight indeed!)

                        I get changed and look around the Cathedral. My running shorts are wet from sitting on the grass though so I need the toilets to change. There's only 2 cubicles and both are full. I can't be bothered to wait though. There's no-one else around and it's only gonna take me 2 seconds to take off my running shorts and put on my other shorts. But of course as soon as I take my running shorts off, the door flies open and then walks in a little boy with his dad and  his mum stood outside who also got an eyeful. It was all there to see! I felt so embarrassed and got those shorts on so quickly but the damage had been They looked embarrassed too and I walked out of there and headed for the pub for a much deserved Chicken burger and a pint, followed by a train home. Lovely day out and cheap too. I still want to do the whole of the testway this summer. Let me know if you're interested :)

(Where I finished my 30 miles. This path goes from Salisbury to Christchurch and is also 30 miles. Watch this space!)