A Blast from the Past I – The Caesar’s Camp Midnight 30 – 22nd Oct 2011

I thought it might be nice to dig through my archive of past exploits and publish them here. The first one is an article I wrote for the Trailrunner Magazine:

The Caesar’s Camp Midnight 30 – 22nd October 2011.

The Caesar’s Camp Endurance runs take place over a weekend in October each year, in the Caesar’s Camp area near Aldershot, Army land used for training but accessible to the public. There are 100 and 50 mile races, which start at midday on the Saturday, and a 30, which starts at midnight that evening. The 30 was added into the event a few years ago, because, by the middle of the night, the 50 and 100 milers are well spread out, dropped out or (in the case of the 50) finished, and the feeding station crews were getting rather bored. All distances use the same 10 mile course, which has a checkpoint at 5.5 miles. This format makes the races relatively easy to support: food and drink are provided at the start/finish and checkpoint.

However, if you think of these races as ‘soft option’ ultras, you are sadly mistaken. Three things you should know about the course:

  1. It’s tough in ways you wouldn’t imagine for Hampshire (or most other parts of the UK)
  2. See 1
  3. As 2

The coarse has a total ascent of 1500 ft, and includes two climbs strewn with flint nodules and two steep and rather technical descents. If anybody wants some super-tough OMM/fell/hill training and fancies a change from the mountains and moors of the UK (especially if you like dry feet, as the ground drains well and the Hampshire climate is relatively dry), get an OS map of the area and go exploring.

You wouldn’t think any event in the Home Counties, even an ultra, would have such a high drop-out rate, but in 2010 only 50 people, out of 85 starters, finished. And if you think you’ll find a shoulder to cry on in, forget it: to quote the race director, Henk Van der Beek, from the race website; “My unsympathetic attitude to those that whine is free on supply and finally we play lots of sad country music to make the weekend even more horrid.”

My friend, Sark (the main reason I started running seriously 5 years back, let alone doing ultras) was doing the 100, ‘unfinished business’ for him after having to drop out at 50 miles in 2010 because he was throwing up. I had originally entered the 100, but later I got my dates mixed up and organised a family break in Snowdonia that wouldn’t allow me to make the midday start, so I transferred to the 30 and planned join Sark afterwards as a support runner on his last few laps.

Anyway, back to the race.

There was a buzz around the start/finish, and a large camp fire adjacent. I enjoyed hanging before the start, chewing the fat with various supporters and my fellow 30 milers.

Only 9 of us were doing the 30, and as you would expect with such small field, the start was low key. I set off at what felt like a modest pace, although I steadily pulled away from the rest of the group for the first couple of miles. After the initial climb up onto a plateau, a bit of up and down and a superb, steep, technical descent, I joined a good track. I’d been spotting the course markers easily and following them with no problems, but it was suddenly a bit too quiet (well, dim actually, as no head torches were in site) behind me. I reached a barrier, beyond which was the public road that bounds the area, a confirmation I’d missed a turn-off. I dashed back the way I’d come, then veered off towards some runners, hopeful that they were going ‘my way’. The course crosses over itself in places, although it would be easy to accidentally cross between some sections even if it didn’t. To mitigate this, as well as arrows, glow sticks are used to mark the course: green for the ‘outward’ leg to the checkpoint, and red for the ‘return’. Seeing the red glow sticks, I realised these runners were on the ‘wrong’ leg (unless I wanted to be credited with a highly suspicious 25 minute split for my first lap!) After a little more meandering, I got back en route, now no longer leading.

The rest of the lap was fairly uneventful: despite the 15 minutes or so wasted, I’d managed it in c2 hours, and had already gained a couple of places back.

I charged into Lap 2 full of optimism that I would easily better Lap 1, and caught up with Sark not long after passing through the start/finish. We ran together and chatted for a couple of minutes. He was only suffering in the ‘normal’ way for an ultra, with no sickness, and so was in good spirits.

The first few miles of lap 2 went well, but things were about to get interesting. I approached one of the cattle grids on the course, on the boundary of an area of forest leading to the far checkpoint. I had slowed to cross them previously, as they looked to have very large gaps. I approached this crossing as slowly as before, but didn’t place my right foot as carefully as I should, and it slipped and twisted in between the deep, rectangular cross-section bars, battering my shin and ankle and leaving me on one foot in the pit underneath. I jumped out almost as quickly as I’d fallen in, in a state of panic, as it’s easy to imagine snapping a shin in a situation like that. My thigh and calf cramped, as they had tensed in reaction to the accident: the calf was particularly painful. As is often the case in these situations, I was mad at myself for having been so careless. Once the cramps had died down, I just felt a bit beaten up, and was back into a proper run within five minutes. I felt like I’d been lucky and got off lightly.

However, my ‘proper’ pace didn’t last long: I had two days’ holiday eating and lack of routine from the Snowdonia break coming back to bite me. Not long after my mishap, my gut became tense and tender, and was quite painful at times. I had to slow up when it got really bad, and this, together with my accident and a couple more minor wrong turns, led to another c2 hour lap.

Henk used a generator to power the big lights at the start/finish, with the added bonus of having a beefy sound system on the same supply. Despite his threats, the music was actually pretty good, an eclectic mix of ‘classic’ stuff and the more esoteric (including some country). Black Sabbath’s Paranoid was blasting out as I finished Lap 2, and I managed some nostalgic head banging as I headed through, which must have looked more amusing with a head torch.

At the start of Lap 3 I was no longer thinking of catching any more 30 milers, just finishing in reasonable style. My energy levels had been good throughout the race, but I was feeling the strain of the climbs, and the discomfort and occasional intense pain in my gut was slowing me down. My concentration was definitely more ‘off’ on the last lap: I took a couple more wrong turns in places I had previously sailed through.

I allowed myself the luxury of a little sit-down at the far checkpoint, enjoying a bit more of a break than the previous very quick stop-offs. With a lightness of heart (but not gut), I trotted off into the final section, eager to nail it and finish. Progress felt smooth until the wooded section near the finish, which seemed to take an eternity. Why did it seem to take so long, when it had felt quite quick on the first two laps? The answer, of course, is that I wasn’t giving it much thought then.

My final lap took about 2:30, which wasn’t a disappointment considering the problems I’d had (my gut was still sore). My finish time was 6:32:51. I got a bottle of beer as 3rd male (5th overall), and felt a bit cheeky taking a prize when I was one of only a handful doing that distance!

I looked at Sark’s previous lap times and estimated his arrival at about 09:00. I realised that continuing at this pace would leave him no margin for the 30 hour cut-off, so I was pleased when he rolled in at 08:15. I’d been lolling about in a sleeping bag for a while by then, and made to get out of it to join him (I was still in my running gear, sans shoes), but the pain in my gut as I bent to get up forced a quick re-think. He was still bearing up quite well, so I had no fear of him not finishing, barring mishaps. I promised I’d try to get mobile for his final lap and waved him off.

I lay about for a couple more hours, enjoying the company of those around the camp fire, and didn’t feel in a particular rush to get up and about. When I finally got my right leg out of my sleeping bag I was shocked to see a deep, gaping cut. I’d been in the sleeping bag since before dawn, and hadn’t bothered to examine what I thought was a graze from the cattle grid: I was still bleeding into my sock although the wound was 7-8 hours old. A helpful first-aider gave it a clean and dressed it. It was obvious I would have to get it to an A&E and an offer was made to drive me to the nearest one. As it was, however, I felt perfectly able to drive (I ran about 17 miles on it) and wanted to see Sark come in on his next lap, which he did at about 11:15

Later that morning, I spent a pleasant enough hour or so watching Every Which Way but Loose on the Frimley Park A&E waiting area telly and left with 3 steri-strips across my cut to show for my escapade. Sark went on to finish his 100 in 29:26:20: no mean feat considering the drop-out rate.

My Shin Gash

My Shin Gash

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