Thursday, 20 February 2014

Another one bites the dust (mud)

Race review of Benfleet 15 - Mud, Mud oh and some mud!

As this year’s race season starts to unfold, here’s a short review of yet another of my adventures...

Next up was a race I’m quite familiar with, the Benfleet 15. This is held every year in Essex near Canvey Island. I’d run this event a number of times and it’s safe to say it's a firm favourites with locals but recently its reputation has started to spread with an ever increasing number turning up at the start line on a freezing winters morning. The race used to start on the island itself then head along the sea wall before looping back onto main land, Hadleigh, Leigh then back to the island but for the last few years the course has transformed and what was a reasonably difficult test is now even harder as the race starts and finishes at the highest point of Hadleigh Downs.

No this wasn't me! (but it felt like it... wheres my shoe!)

I’d come off the back of two marathons in the week before so I really wanted to back off a little for this event especially as I knew this was going to be difficult enough so Mr Andy Hind was kind enough again to step up to the plate and pace me around "casual style". He’ll probably reply to this with some “cock and bull” story about other way around…. BUT trust me Andy, I was using you like a $10 errr anyway, you get the idea!

Well the first thing we noted about the day when we rolled into the car park was the weather. This race has two traditional settings “cold” and “even colder” which results in either "mudfest or ice mud" but today, the skies were clear and there was even a touch of warmth in the air. Strange but I assumed this wouldn’t last so dressed for a blizzard (you can see where this is going).

Anyway, we slowly walked to the start line where I got that feeling that every runner dreads. We had about 15 mins till the start so I jogged over to the “facilities” but the queue was longer than a Primark sale in Bas Vegas! I assessed the situation and returned to Andy telling him that it was in fact last minute nerves and nothing to worry about, was this mistake “number two” (see what I did there).

Whilst waiting for the start it was nice to say hi to some familiar faces including ultra legend Sir Bob Gear and we laughed to ourselves when we realised we were standing in the wrong direction on the start line. We didn't feel too bad as the whole field managed to stand the wrong way around but we were then off. The revised start is quite different to the old one on the island where the hardest part was climbing over “the hump” to the actual start itself without falling over. Here hundreds of people were sprinting flat out downhill on what I was told was part of the Olympic mountain bike course. Well I say flat out until a minute later when the course switched back up the hill and people were now desperately try to keep the running pace as we headed up vertically. I decided walking was the way ahead.

We were soon flying downhill again and I was struggling to keep up with Andy who was embracing the Kevin Wright downhill mantra of “brakes off, balls out! (eye balls!). I did my best to stay on two feet as we continued to literally at times “fly” down the mud covered slope. When we eventually reached the bottom of the downs and turned left towards Leigh Station though I was starting to slowly recover from the shock of the start especially as I think I’d lost a stone so far in sweat loss.

So far the only correct decision I’d made today was to wear my Walsh’s fell shoes as I had decent grip even though the going was terrible at times. As we jogged along recharging the batteries I finally drew level with Andy who looked in about the same place as me now. We were actually towards the back of the pack still at this point mostly due to our decision to start pretty much last but thanks to Andy’s turbo speed we’d somehow managed to pass a few people so weren’t doing too bad. We switched direction again and headed uphill and yet again I decided to employ some ultra running tactics and walk it. I could see at the top where the course switched sharp right that people were again struggling to stay on their feet and I chuckled to myself safe in the fact I was wear my “special shoes”.

We were both still together as we reached the mudfest at the top of the hill. Andy took the lead as he followed the masses along the same line but I decided I would use the special shoes to take the faster racing line. At first it was looking good, I had made up some ground on the runners ahead but this ended suddenly when one of my “super shoes” hadn’t brought into the deal as I ran along leaving it behind in the mud. At this point if I was near the finish, I think I would have left it there but with 13 miles still left to run I had to go back and retrieve it. After finally locating the shoe and digging it out I then tried like a wally to run while trying to pull the shoe back on! Why do people do that? Eventually I pulled the stupid thing on as Andy was starting to disappear in the distance.

I hit the gas on and managed to catch up my partner in crime. Andy hadn’t noticed me "throwing a shoe" and he laughed sympathetically when I told him what happen as we again started to climb into Leigh. This is usually one of the worst parts for mud but strangely it wasn’t that bad this time as they had placed some form of mesh matting for the Olympics and this made the usual mockery of running at this point actually achievable.

As we switched from mud to road, I had pulled away slightly from Andy but I pushed on for now as I decided to stop at the aid station for a breather. I have to say all the volunteers were amazing as usual and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many jelly babies in my life. Andy soon came in and we walked together out of the checkpoint on the sea wall heading to Canvey. It was a pleasant surprise that we weren’t greeted by the high winds that can be a feature of this section and again it was actually very nice. Andy was reminding me that we were starting to go too fast and I was grateful as I was feeling pretty good but recovery was the order of the day so we backed off.

It was too long before we turned off the seawall back onto road and got to the next aid station. We again restocked (more jelly babies) and pushed on over the road and along the opposite seawall towards the school on the island and the old start which was actually now the turnaround point. We were passing the race leaders running the other way and as always it was nice to shout greetings to each other. We eventually got to the turnaround point with yet another aid station where I ate.... even more jelly babies! We passed another marshal just after this aid station who was jumping up and down in excitement cheering on the everyone and giving out chocolate, it doesn't get much better.

I was feeling really good as we waved to some of the other runners who were still on the top section of seawall and shortly we were leaving the island, running past Benfleet train station and walking him the hill to the final checkpoint. You guessed it more jelly babies and a juice chaser and I was ready to go. I think Andy was starting to feel the effects of missing out on some recent training (he was still doing pretty good in my books), and I started to pull away a little but only so I could push the hills a little.

I knew now the end was near but I’d also run this modified route once before so I knew the finish had a huge sting in its tail. Well I thought I knew! This year the route switched to more sections of the mountain bike course but this time it was uphill winding up the steep incline like an alpine pass (well it seemed like it at the time). I got to what I thought must be the top only to discover that is was a short plateau and there was another “mountain” to climb. I couldn't walk up the last hill so I jogged up and over the finish line. Andy finished shortly after and I think both of us were more than pleased with the days efforts. I must of come away with some kind of jelly baby PB.

Lessons learnt? My "gut feeling" at the start was correct as the only brown stuff I was covered in was mud (I hope!) and running in the sun with 3 layers head to toe isn't the best idea....

A great day out with friends.

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