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River Deep

A friend of mine, Peter Cusick, is doing the Piece of String Fun Run (PoSFR), which is based in Streatley-on-Thames, on 24th November. I’ll let you read the linked page to get the idea of what it’s about: suffice to say the use of ‘fun’ in the title is a little cavalier. I’d told a few people that I wanted to do a 50 km day in the 5×50 Challenge, which you will be familiar with if you’ve read earlier posts, and I’d mentioned this to Peter, who is a ‘special needs’ runner like me. We decided to buddy up on my ’50 km’ day, on 21st October, and base it in Streatley to help him familiarise himself with the paths round there.

Streatley is an excellent venue for running and walking, because The Ridgeway (RW) and Thames Path (TP) national trails cross there. I am very familiar with the Ridgeway and we presumed that, although it doesn’t follow the riverbank all the time, the Thames Path would be well signed and therefore easy to follow. The Thames flows west-east, but it has huge meanders and its general flow past Streatley is north-south.

Heading ‘easterly’ on The RW out of Streatley, you cross over to Goring and follow the east side of the Thames north for about five miles, before taking a sharp turn east to follow the South Oxfordshire Grim’s Ditch, a prehistoric earthwork. In the other direction, it climbs the chalk downs and follows them west for c23 miles, before you join a minor road to cross the M4 east of Swindon.

North out of Streatley, the TP is on the opposite (west) bank of the river to the Ridgeway. In the other direction, it crosses over to Goring and follows the east bank.

With a 50 km target, it would be feasible to get a good run in on each section of the RW and TP, with stops back at Peter’s car to replenish and re-stock. We set off after 3 pm, with the intention pushing well into the hours of darkness, as the PoSFR starts at midnight (part of the fun, obviously) and this would further aid his familiarisation! Peter’s Garmin GPS watch, which we would use to measure our progress, is set to ‘miles’: 50 km is a little over 31 miles, so I started thinking of us doing a 31 mile run instead.

Our first leg took us north along the Thames, following The Ridgeway. I’d assured Peter that the path wouldn’t be that muddy, despite the wet autumn: I was mostly right; just a few early sections were muddy. I had to be careful with my route finding, as I’d only run that part of the RW in the opposite direction the 3 times I’d done the Ridgeway Challenge race, but it is well signed, so it was never a problem. We ran all of the Thames section and then followed Grim’s Ditch for about 2.5 miles, covering about 7.5 miles in total. After running back down Grim’s Ditch, we crossed the Thames and ran on the TP back south to Streatley, new territory for both of us. There was some more serious mud to contend with, but nothing worse than that: the signposting kept us right when we weren’t on the riverbank, as hoped for.

By this time the weather had gone from dull to dull with light rain, although my modern clothing seemed to keep the moisture at bay, and I didn’t feel damp under my top layers, despite not wearing a water/shower proof jacket. We got back to Peter’s car nearly half way to my 31 mile target and enjoyed a brief stop and some food.

Our next leg was the TP south, which could not be combined with the RW at all and so would need to make up only around a quarter of our total. Turning around when the path met the road on the outskirts of Whitchurch would give us about right distance for this.

The first half of the TP south leg was very much what you would expect: it followed the riverbank, out of Goring and then through rough pasture, with plenty of mud around the gateways.

I’d noticed from the map that the second half of this leg not only left the river, but also climbed onto some significant slopes. This added to the challenge, and also proved to be rather attractive, contouring through woods and giving us a ‘roller-coaster’ dip and climb that took concentration and effort to negotiate in the dark on tiring legs. This part of our run was the most interesting and I was happy to have to reverse it after our turnaround.

Back at Peter’s car, we mustered once more. The first 2.5 miles of the RW west out of Streatley follows main and then minor roads, then there is a car park were the tarmac ends and it becomes a dirt track. The road sections would be boring to run, so it seemed sensible to drive to the car park and run from there.

We were heading back into familiar territory for me, and worked out that a turnaround at or just beyond an obvious sharp right turn in the RW on Compton Down would give us the distance of 8.6 miles we needed to safely get our 31 miles. I found it easier to leave the comfort of the car than the last time because we were ‘nearly there’, with just a modest distance to do.

The climb onto the downs was a long, steady one. It was still wet, and a little breezy, and I wondered how exposed we would feel when we got up on the plateau. It did feel rather bleak once we got high up, but it was mild and the wind wasn’t that much stronger. I was glad I knew the trail well: you feel like you’re a long way from civilisation up there in the dark, and would be intimidating if it was unfamiliar. After the big climb came a descent, which was very slick, as chalk tracks tend to be when wet. We were careful with our footing and only had a couple of small slips.

At the right turn, I decided another couple of hundred meters was needed to be absolutely sure I’d gone far enough. The 50 km was just a ‘symbolic’ distance, but once I committed to the idea, I didn’t want to miss it by a small margin. As soon as we turned around to head back, I felt the wind in my face, but I was fairly sure once we were heading east again after the turn it would be more at our backs and less bothersome.

Just before the turn, a 4×4 vehicle roared towards us from the south, up the track we’d joined when we’d made the turn. Someone was swinging a powerful searchlight out of one of the windows. It slowed and swung around in a tight arc, then stopped. They seemed to be looking for something, and sped off again through a gate off the track. This was a little disconcerting.

A few minutes later we saw what was probably another 4×4 speeding across the RW just near us, bouncing madly as it crossed the ruts. We wondered what was going on: some sort of treasure hunt perhaps?

About ten minutes after that, a 4×4 that may have been one of the previous ones careened up the RW towards us from the east. We got off the track and waited for them to pass, but they stopped when they were level with us. A window wound down and we saw the steamed up interior, with 4 occupants. We were wearing head torches, which probably dazzled them as we looked in, which is perhaps why a searchlight was swung in our faces, but it was a bit much! One of them asked us if we’d seen another vehicle. I spluttered something about the last vehicle we’d seen and they were off.

Peter and I wondered, half-jokingly, if we could have got involved in a ‘Deliverance’ scenario with Oxfordshire red-necks, and hoped we’d have a quiet time until we got back to his car. We saw and heard nothing else. I was still feeling fairly strong and enjoyed the challenge of negotiating the rough track, downhill, in the dark, at a fair speed back to the car.

As we readied ourselves for the drive home, we had that lovely tired, happy, satisfaction you get from completing an endurance challenge. The Garmin showed 31.4 miles, which is about 50.5 km. Peter was happy to have gained a lot of familiarity with the Streatley trails for the PoSFR and I was happy to have gone over my ‘magic’ distance.

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Push the Tempo Once More

I was out on one of my favourite runs last night: over the downs near Baydon to The Ridgeway, west along The Ridgeway and back to my van over another part of the downs.

It was the first time I’d run since the Ridgeway 40 and my legs didn’t feel too sluggish. I really pushed the tempo, because I don’t want to lose too much speed as I do the endurance events over the summer.

It is exhilarating to run fairly fast and be able to maintain it for a decent period of time (about an hour in this case).

Let’s see what the weekend brings. I was supposed to be driving up north, and was going to do the Shining Tor fell race, but I’ve just heard that the job’s been cancelled! Ho hum.

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Merrel Trail Glove Review

Rating: rated 4.5 of 5 stars

Source: bought it used
Price Paid: £50 (‘nearly new’ off eBay)

Summary

A true ‘barefoot’ shoe with a tough sole that is good for trails, provided they’re not too muddy. The very ‘precise’ fit makes them a good shoe for technical trails.

Pros

  • Precise fit
  • Tough sole protects the foot well
  • Wide toe box

Cons

  • Tread is too shallow for muddy trails

The Merrell Trail Glove (TG) is one of the new generation of ‘barefoot’ running shoes. The TG’s cushioning is very minimal, but what makes it a true ‘barefoot’ shoe is that it has no heel-forefoot differential, that is the shoe does not lift the heel relative to the forefoot at all. Standard running shoes have 8-12mm (1/3-1/2 inch) differential, with ‘minimal’ shoes around 4mm.

I bought them in May 2011. I’m a UK-based ultra runner who is used to minimal (but not ‘barefoot’) shoes, ie Brooks Mach Spikeless, Inov8 F-Lite 230, and even I have found the Trail Gloves a huge change! The TGs engage all the leg and core muscles, not just the more limited range normal shoes do, making for a very intense running workout!

The fit, not just the sole is ‘barefoot’. The wide, ergonomic forefoot allows the toes to splay: this is key to getting your feet working fully. The fit is very glove-like, although the upper has no stretch so they can take a bit of putting on, but this is a small price to pay for the very precise feel of the shoe, which makes them good for ‘technical’ trails.

The TG has a shallow tread for a trail shoe, so it makes a pretty good all-rounder, but not suited for muddy conditions.

In August 2011, I did half of the 85-mile Ridgeway Challenge in the TGs, at which point I was happy to change into a more traditional (although still light’n’low) shoe, in big part because it was very wet and slippery, so the shallow tread made it hard to stay stable, and my feet and lower legs had got very tired as a result.

I continue to use them very regularly and in May 2012 ran another ultra trail event on the Ridgeway, the Ridgeway 40 in mostly hard conditions and my feet felt tired at the end, but only in the normal way you would expect for that distance!

The process of getting used to a barefoot shoe like the TG is a pleasure and the reward is simply a more natural running experience. I’m now pretty used to them and enjoy using them as my ‘default’, day-to-day running shoe.

Disclosure: Merrell have recently given me a new pair of Trail Gloves because I post very regularly on their Facebook page. I am a fan of the brand, but I say what I think and I do post some construction criticism. This review was recently updated, but most of it was written before they gave me the new shoes!

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Rockin the Ridgeway Pictures

Some pictures from the Ridgeway 40, mostly the first half. The runners in white tops are my friends Paul (black shorts) and Ian (blue shorts), and there’s 1 shot of me running up a hill (black long-sleeved top and black shorts). Glynn, the guy running in Huarache sandals is in picture 7.

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Rockin’ the Ridgeway

After the London Marathon 3 weeks ago, a fast 20 miler the weekend after, and 28 hilly, muddy miles on Monday, I was happy to drop my plan to run the Ridgeway 40 (RW40) both ways, as outlined in my crazy plan.

This year the RW40 was on 12th May, and was celebrating its 50th anniversary. I arrived at Overton Hill on the A4, the rather underwhelming western end of the Ridgeway National Trail, on Saturday, 25 minutes before the ‘runners start’, with my friends Ian trussler, Paul Byrne and Peter Cusick, together with Ian’s partner Lynne, who was there to see us off. In running terms, you couldn’t find a more disparate bunch:

  • Ian is my main running buddy, a lover of rough, hilly and esoteric races, as well as the more mainstream stuff. I like Ian because he can be talked into just about anything, and so has joined me in some pretty extreme hill races (the llanbedr to Blaenafon fell race most recently) and a couple of ultras (the 2011 Ridgeway 40 and Ridgeway Challenge).
  • Paul has been running for a few years now and has really developed as a runner. He has done many marathons, half marathons and shorter races, and several muddy, hilly trail races. He has been intrigued by ultras for a while now and had always wanted to go beyond 26 miles.
  • Peter makes me look like a slacker. He can run a sub-3 hour marathon, is an excellent triathlete, is super fast on trails and runs ultras, the longest being the 145 mile Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR).

Lynne and Ian tried and failed to light the camping stove that had lit first time the night before. They had hot water in a flask and some rice pudding they’d heated up at home, and planned to get both properly hot in situ. As it was, we had cups of tea and sufficiently warm rice pudding; a good way to start the day.

It was sunny, but cool, verging on cold, with a bit of a breeze; a huge contrast to last year, when I stumbled into the start in stormy weather after running it the ‘wrong’ way overnight from Streatley, to be sheltered by Ian and Lynne in their car and given a good breakfast, ready to go back with Ian.

The Ridgeway 40 is a walking event that takes runners, not a race, although it’s probably pretty competitive at the ‘top end’. Peter was mildly surprised to learn we weren’t to be issued with numbers to pin to our fronts. Most of the entrants start at 8:00, but can set off any time until 8:30. Runners are supposed to set off at 8:30 so that they don’t get to the checkpoints before they open. All entrants have a tally card, which is signed by a marshall, who also records the time on it and their record sheet.

The runners bolted off bang on 8:30. Except for Ian, Paul and I: we were finishing off the rice pudding. That was the last we saw of Peter. He’s doing the GUCR again in three weeks time, and I’d tried to persuade him that a leisurely RW40 would give him more benefit for that than a quick one, but he had his sights on ‘sub 6’ and stuck to it.

My only plan was to stick with Paul and give him any support he needed to get to the finish. He’d ran the Manchester Marathon 2 weeks ago, had a tough time of it in terrible weather, and was feeling less than optimum as a result. Once we set off, a couple of minutes late, Paul, Ian and I soon started catching the slowest walkers and one slower runner, Glynn, who was running in Huarache sandals, earning him instant kudos with me.

I ran with Paul and Ian, at a pretty reasonable pace , except if we hit a steeper slope, where I would pull away from them a bit so I could take photos and then wait for them. We got to the first check point (CP), Barbury Castle at 7 miles, pretty easily: there are 9 CPs on the RW40, so the average gap is only 4 miles. The RW40 cuts a corner off the national trail just after CP1, which makes the route more direct, but cuts out the beautiful Smeathe’s Ridge as well as the rather scrappy trails on the north-east of Ogbourne St George.

The short-cut crosses the wide valley that carries the A346 south to Marlborough, and the national trail is rejoined on the ridge at the other side. It’s easy to carry on straight over instead of turning left back onto the RW, which a woman entrant would have done if I’d not been sat on the junction taking photos and put her right: I’d been told that one year several entrants had turned right and ended up back at Barbury Castle, adding something like 8 miles onto their route!

Back on the RW proper, Paul was starting to show the strain: the distance we’d covered thus far was within his experience, but not over that kind of terrain. I started a relentless stream of encouragement, sometimes bordering on lies (“Fairies will  meet you at the next checkpoint to lift and carry you onward.”) to keep his spirits up and, as much as anything, distract him from his discomfort and fatigue. CP3 at Foxhill (14.5 miles) was the first point at which he started to talk about dropping out, but a bit of rest and food, and the thought that the next CP wasn’t that far, was enough to keep him going.

At the next 2 CPs, we fell into a pattern of Paul pretty much deciding to drop out, then him getting a bit of food and rest, and me persuading him to keep going. The best parts were when we lost ourselves in conversation and the country just rolled by. Ian had headed off by this stage: he’d struggled to keep his pace down to match ours, which can be surprisingly difficult, and I encouraged him to cut loose. Sometime around 25 miles Paul told me that he intended to drop out at CP6 (28 miles) and that I should push on, and I knew from his tone that he wouldn’t be dissuaded. I headed off, happy in the knowledge that his was pleased with the thought of having run further than he ever had, and on a hilly trail.

I was really looking forward to CP6, as it was the legendary ‘tea & cakes’ CP. When I got there, sure enough there was a good selection of cakes, including professionally made ’50th anniversary’ cup cakes and banana loaf made with cardamon. I stayed there long enough for Paul to roll in, pretty wrecked, but also happy to have joined the ‘ultra club’.

Once I’d had several cakes and flapjacks, plus 2 cups of tea, I made ready to head off, determined to hit the remainder steadily, if not hard, without taking any more ‘long’ breaks at the CPs. I said a slightly sad goodbye to the CP6 crew, who had decided to retire from this annual duty, having done it for quite a few years. I also met Alan Smith, the RW40 director there, and thanked him, as he too is ‘retiring’ after many years. I wonder what will happen to this lovely event in the future?

It was good to pass walkers for the last time, having ‘yoyoed’ with them for several hours, running past them, then seeing them again as I rested with Paul.

The weather had been ideal through the day; sunny with some cloud and a cool breeze. By this time, the breeze seemed to have died down a little, and I took my long-sleeved top off and was running in my new, rather excellent Patagonia Capilene ‘tank top’ (as they call it), a light stretchy singlet which has one crucial quality: it’s long enough to tuck into my shorts and not bunch under my rucksack waist-belt. It’s also worth mentioning my Merrell Trail Gloves, which were a joy to use, even over such a long distance.

Inevitably, I was feeling the strain by this point, and just wanted to be finished. I hammered along pretty relentlessly, but still took the time to chat to a few walkers and have a few biscuits at the last CP.

I saw Ian, who had finished about 2 hours earlier, just before I got to the finish at Streatley Youth Hostel. We were all taking advantage of the frequent, relatively cheap train service back to Chippenham to get home, and Peter and Paul (who had been driven to the finish) had both gone.

To add insult to injury, the finish of the RW40 is in an annexe of the YH, up its steep drive and a few steps, which seen very taxing by this stage. I handed my tally card in and enjoyed the laid-on nibbles and camaraderie of the finishers.

Peter was actually the first to finish, in 5:50, which would have been 5:48 if he’d been able to find the annexe a bit quicker! Ian finished in about 8:40, which he was very pleased with. I finished in about 10:40, and obviously hadn’t done the event to get a ‘time’, and so was pretty happy too.

I’ll ‘watch this space’ with interest (and a little worry) to see how the Ridgeway 40 evolves (survives?) as Alan hands the reins over. It’s a great event; long may it continue.

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Not Too Cold for February

I’ll soon be running hard again – I’ve got a hilly off-road training run around Bath on Monday – but in the meantime, as I near the end of my resting period, I had a lovely walk today with a few people from my church.

We set off up Hinton Downs, the same bridleway I ran up in my post, Downs Dash. It did not feel like May, hence the title of this post, but at least it wasn’t raining and most of the going was very good (only a few muddy bits). We walked down into Bishopstone and found a lovely pub, the Royal Oak, which I will definitely return to with my wife, Cath for a romantic lunch. We then returned via a different bridleway to our cars. A good way to get some fresh air.

I took some pictures:

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Fun in the Sun

Mr Blue Sky, please tell us why
You had to Hide away for so long

It was lovely to get out under a warm sun today, over the downs to The Ridgeway, even if it was only about 5 miles.

Nuff said.

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