An opportunity presented itself to me about a week or so ago. One of the members from my running club, Denmead Striders, declared that he was unfit for a race this weekend and that the ticket was available if anyone wanted it. The race was the Meon Valley Plod, I’d heard about it and read about it and knew that it was a tough, hilly, 21 mile cross country race with breathtaking views so naturally I decided to throw caution to the wind and take the transfer place even though I’d already booked two races in February, the Chichester 10k the week before and the Portsmouth Coastal Half Marathon the week after. In hindsight, given that the longest run I’d had up until that point in 2013 was 12 miles, it probably wasn’t the wisest of choices I’ve ever made! However, after smashing my 10k PB at the Chichester Priory 10k I felt on top of the world and committed myself to it. In the run up to the event I’d been keeping an eye on the weather, to say it wasn’t looking great was a bit of an understatement. I even contemplated going and buying some running tights in the week before hand, but rubbished that idea deciding to tough it out in shorts, I’d been out running in the snow in my shorts so this couldn’t be much worse, could it? Can you see a bit of a theme building up here, lots of wise choices on limited experience being made….
I receive my race bib through the post a couple of days before the event and an email through to print out a form to hand in on the day to complete the transfer. Game on, number 72, the year I was born, cool! Everything was ready, I’m doing it, no backing out now, the sense of excitement and anticipation building like it does with every event. There’s nothing like the buzz you get from getting your race pack through. The bib takes pride of place on the fridge, where I stick all my race bibs prior to using them.
Sunday soon arrives in a cold, wet, dreary fashion and I’m struggling to get out of bed and get motivated, it really is miserable the other side of the curtains and my bed is so warm. The realisation that I’ve not really done any training to prepare for a gruelling 21 mile hilly bastard of a cross country race starting to sink in, the element of doubt creeping in, “nah, it’ll be fine, I ran a full marathon in December, this is shorter, it’ll be fine”, I’m not quite convinced. I drag my sorry carcass out of bed and start looking for something to wear, one of these days ill get into the habit of getting my kit ready the night before, but at least I’d remembered to stick my Garmin on charge before I went to bed. 10 minutes later I’m dressed in what feels to be appropriate, Nike compression shorts, Karrimor running shorts over the top, dual layer Wright socks, my HRM strap, a long sleeve compression top and my Denmead Striders club vest finishes the ensemble. My hat, gloves, Brooks Cascadia 7’s and Nike hoody are downstairs somewhere, I’m ready (in a fashion). During this time the missus has done the hard work and rallied the kids, I frantically fill out the back of my race bib and she pins it on to my vest for me, that’s love for you! By 09:15 we are out the door and in the car, luckily the start line is only 10 minutes away from our house as I realise the car is in the red and we have to head the opposite way to get fuel. Doh!
After much faffing we get to Clanfield Scout Hut, the race HQ for the day, it’s heaving with neon garbed runners, Lycra clad adventurers, a hardy bunch of loons! I squeeze through and get my transfer sorted, handing over the form I’d printed, job done! I’m now fully registered. I edge my way back through the masses inhaling the intoxicating scent of Deep Heat and Vaporub and find a group from my running club discussing the upcoming race, all of them having done it before, one of whom has won it 3 times and was hoping to win it again today. They’ve got a map and are talking about the differences from previous years, all whilst stood shoulder to shoulder in the cramped conditions. At this point the reservations I had about not being prepared at all for what’s coming up really come to the forefront of my mind. I’m in the wrong place, I should still be in bed, it’s freezing outside, it’s been raining solidly for a few days and the course is being described in a truly British understated way as being a ‘little slippy underfoot’. I’m not ready for this and to top things off I realise that I’ve left my gloves at home! Brilliant! No time to worry about that now, it’s 10:25, time to put my game face on and get the job done. We all tramp out the temporary HQ and line up in the lane outside, I’m one of a group of 5 Denmead Striders, we pose for a quick before picture and await the klaxon, BAAAAARRRRPPPP, and we’re off!!!
Straight away we are into the first of seven hills, but it’s ok, it feels like a reasonable climb and the pack stretches out a bit, the Tarmac lane soon turns into dirt track, which soon turns into muddy woodland, all the time climbing upwards. The first mile feels slow, 11 minutes, but this is mainly down to the fact we’re a bit bunched up at this point, the mood is high with lots of joking going on between the Striders and other runners. We reach the top of the first incline much to my relief and the pace picks up a bit for the next two miles, it’s raining, but the conditions don’t seem to bad, starting to warm up quite nicely. We pass the 3 mile mark after about 28 minutes and head across some fields and towards the second of the climbs, this ones a lot steeper and it’s time for some “walky walky” after navigating a gate. This hill is steep, as you can see from the pictures. This really takes the wind out of my sails, hands on knees as I push/walk my way up it. For the first time I start thinking “what the hell am I doing, this is insane!”.
Eventually we get to the top, the view is spectacular, but the exposure isn’t, it’s at this point that I first experience the sideways rain and wind that is to accompany us around the open parts of the course. We run across the peaks and undulations, seemingly always with a slight left to right downwards bank, putting real strain on my left ankle. My memory is a bit of a blur about this point as I’m still recovering from that hill climb, whilst trying to keep pace with the group. I start to fall behind a bit at around 6 miles, but manage to catch the group again, albeit briefly. There was a technical downhill segment through some woods, I twist my ankle a couple of times down here, probably due to inexperience more than anything else. It’s hard to take in and appreciate any of the scenery as I’m 100% focused on trying not to fall over and break my neck. Eventually this leads me to drop back from the group at 7 or 8 miles at the next lot of hills. I steel myself to the fact that I’m now going it alone from here on in.
The brutal hills just keep coming as does the wind and rain, I can’t feel my hands and my left hamstring is cramping up badly. I see runners at pretty much every checkpoint from 10 miles onwards dropping out and waiting with the brave marshals to be rescued. The conditions are foul, between miles 11 and 12 it is so so muddy, knee high mud that try’s it’s hardest to suck off your trainers and in my case succeeded in it’s mission, I briefly lost my left shoe and had to go practically elbow deep in the clay mud bog to get it out. Lets just say that putting it back on and the moments directly after occupied my thoughts, it was somewhat uncomfortable, but never fear, at the end of the mud patch was a practically vertical hill, just to take my mind off things. Perfect!
Once I got to the top of that climb something happened to my legs. I seemed to be unable to stay upright. I’d be running along this left to right incline, left ankle screaming at me from being bent over, then the next thing I know THUD straight onto my side and sliding 8-10ft down the bank. I’m freezing cold, soaked to the bone, left hamstring and ankle hurting suffering from an inability to stay on my feet and only just past the halfway point. This does not bode well, dejected I start walking for a bit as I can’t keep going without falling over and having to expend effort to climb back up and I’m hurting. I’m seriously thinking about quitting the next lot of marshals I find, this is just madness. The mind goes to some strange places when you’re running, there is so much more to running than strength and fitness, mental fortitude plays a huge part. Whilst I’m thinking about this and continuing to plod on I talk myself in and out if quitting numerous times. I’ve never dropped out of a race and I convince myself half heartedly that I’m not going to start now, well not until I reach the next checkpoint…maybe…
Fortunately the course has for the time being gone back into the woods which offers up some sort of shelter from the driving rain and cutting wind. This is a great relief, trees, somewhere to pee! I have to stop and it takes me about 3 minutes of fumbling to get my hands to work and unlace my shorts. My hands are in a bad way, stupid bright red/purple useless lumps of flesh dangling at the ends of my arms. Again I curse my stupidity of leaving my gloves at home, I curse my stupidity at the whole ‘tough it out’ mentality that got me to where I am now, cold, wet, wearing shorts with practically day glo legs only the mud hiding just how red they were and in some woods in the middle of bloody nowhere with another 7 or 8 miles to go, including the biggest hill out of the lot of them waiting at mile 17! Awesome sauce! I’m stood there shivering realising that I’d better get moving or I’m going to be in trouble. I run on through the woods and get to a left turn and hit another big water feature, I start walking/wading through the icy water and then suddenly I’m up past my knees as the ground underneath the murky water drops away. I pick myself up out of the puddle and continue on. There’s a bit more of a downhill section here, down a waterfall like ravine with rocks, logs and fast running flood water to contend with. “This is utter madness” my ankles scream at me, “you’re 16.5 stone for Christ’s sake, you’re not a mountain goat!”
I reach the end of that trail which leads onto what appears to be a road, it’s under a rushing torrent of water threatening to sweep away one of the most welcome sights ever, the 14 mile checkpoint! There are runners huddled in space blankets waiting to be rescued, concerned marshals checking and rechecking every arrival is ok and good to continue and more importantly there is cake! Epic epic cake, I get my fingers working and manage to pick up some cake and devour it, then some pieces of banana, a bit of what appears to be chopped up Mars bar, a couple of cups of water, some jelly babies and I’m starting to feel a bit better. I see a guy I recognised from the Portsmouth marathon and have a brief chat with him about how much more civilised that course was compared to this beast! All thoughts of quitting are out the window even though the option is being offered up on a plate. I’m not going to be beaten by a lack of training, no real cross country experience, the appalling weather and a bloody tough course, no way I’m earning this medal, I’m not going to be beaten. I run off down the hill and continue onwards towards the big Butser hill climb at 17.
In between the aid station and Butser there are approximately 3 miles of terrain to cross. I have the theme tune to Junior Kick Start on continuous loop in my head as I attempt to run/walk up a rock/log strewn waterfallesque ravine, I must be tripping out on cake at this point as I half expected Dougie Lampkin to haring past on a 2-stroke, either him or a mountain goat! Not a mountain goat on a 2-stroke motorbike though as that would be just ridiculous. I hold on to that thought for a while, dah dah dah dada dada da da dada dah…. Then there it is, looming up in front of me, a clay path hewn up the side of a monstrous climb, you can see splodges of neon all the way up it, if it wasn’t quite so utterly ridiculous it would be foreboding. I carry on trotting towards it, dah dah dah dada dada da da dada dah…. not really caring how much this is going to hurt but just to get it done and out the way. I get to the bottom of the hill path only to find out that due to water flow over the years the path has been cut into two and you have to sort of hop from one side to the other to wend your way up it. The views from here were spectacular, it’s a 500ft or so climb that is so steep it only covers something like 1/2 a mile. The faithful course photographer is positioned 3/4 of the way up snapping pictures of the walking dead shambling past him. Hats off to him, his name is Alan Dunk of Denmead Photos, he comes out to most the Portsmouth Joggers events and captures the moments and publishes the images free of charge to whoever wants them. Top fella, it was not a nice day to be perched on a massive hill snapping pictures of foolhardy runners!!
I trudge past Alan, attempt to say thank you which in my head seemed like it sounded very insincere, it wasn’t meant to, but I think it may have done, that’s exhaustion for you, which is where I am, right knackered! The hill gradient tapers off a little bit to become a bit more sociable, I can take in the picturesque vista in front of me and visualise just how high I’ve climbed, wow, so so worth it! I then reach the brow of the hill and get hit by the sideways driving rain, no, not worth it at all, bloody hill! My emotions throughout this run were a roller coaster, ranging from “this is stunning” to “kill me now”. At least it’s flattish again and tarmac, nice to have some solid footing from time to time, there’s not been much along the way for sure, perhaps just a couple of miles of solid ground, the rest just mud, sludge, rocks, logs, branches! Bracing myself again the driving rain I push on, running again towards my goal. I can see a flag up ahead at around the 18 mile mark, it’s another aid station!!! Just what the doctor ordered, a little more to get me to the end.
As I get closer to it I can hear a familiar “go Daddy” being shouted, my vision refocuses and I can see Rochann stood next to the aid station cheering me on and pointing towards her car parked up with the kids all leaning out the window cheering and waving. This gives me a massive lift, a grab a water and talk to Rochann who pours me out a cup of sweet tea. I neck that, it’s like liquid gold. I go back and try to pick up some cake, hands still not working. I manage to cram some in my mouth whilst a marshal helps out a lass next to me who is also suffering with her hands. I get some more down my neck, trudge over to the car to give Ellie a kiss and then head off to get the final few miles done. I’m hoping, almost praying, that these final miles are all downhill and all on solid ground. Who am I kidding, of course they’re not going to be like that, ok they’re not as bad as some of the miles covered so far, but they are still no walk in the park. I catch up with Graham, one of the Striders I started with, at about mile 19. He’s cramped up and suffering a bit, this course has taken its toll. I start to run/walk with him, urging him forward through the mud and puddles. We are soon out on to the road in Clanfield heading up a final hill before the finish. Graham urges me to go on as we’ve only 500 or so meters to go. So I reluctantly jog on, attempting to put in a bit of speed to the finish. It’s in sight, just past the Rising Sun pub, mmmm beer… No, not now, focus, one foot in front of the other and get past these others in front of you… I trudge on, passing two or three and make it over the line in 4:30:25, finishing in 202nd place out of 252 that finished.
I’m filled with a sense of elation, I’d done it, against all the odds I’d finished!! I’m gutted that Rochann and the kids aren’t at the finish line to cheer me or congratulate me, but these things happen, they must have been held up. I get told to head back up to race HQ to get warmed up and get my medal. I choose to hang around in the rain for a couple more minutes to cheer Graham into the finish.
Once back in race HQ I’m greeted with a scene not too dissimilar to a triage, with quite a few runners lining the hall wrapped in space blankets, huddled up shivering furiously over a cup of soup or tea whilst being attended to. Much to my delight there was a table with lots more cake on it, I grabbed a piece and went off to find my medal and pick up a Tshirt.
Job done. Here’s my GPS log of the event – Meon Valley Plod
In summary, this was an excellent race that I have sworn never to do again (at least until next year). It was superbly organised, the course was laid out well, there was an abundance of fantastic marshals who braved the elements to see us right, the aid stations were simply perfect, the cake was awesome. I’ll just forget about the course, twisting my ankle, losing a shoe, falling over 4 times and the hills and the weather so that I can talk myself into doing it again next year.