Well, only 15 posts on this blog during 2017; a poor effort, but 2017 wasn't great for a lot of reasons, I'll try to do better on both running and blogging fronts in the coming year. It's easy to start with as the final event of 2017 was both enjoyable and encouraging.
I had always planned to do the Tour de Helvellyn as my December outing but quite late on an annual social event which I expected to be on the 23rd turned out to be a week earlier, on the day of the race, so I reluctantly had to withdraw and look around for something else to do. The Winter Cross Ultra on the 28th seemed about right from both date and length perspectives. It would mean an early start to avoid an overnight stay but in our game you get used to being up at odd hours of the night, so I signed up for the "fun run" 50k distance. A longer 45 mile option was available but I suspected I would be falling asleep on the way home if I went for that one.
A 2,30am alarm saw me up and heading south on the 200 mile trip to the event headquarters in the small village of Meonstoke, about 10 miles southwest of Winchester. In spite of the dire warnings of extreme weather on almost every motorway sign the journey was easy and uneventful, though snow by the roadside was a bit more apparent south of Oxford. The last few miles were interesting as I hadn't looked at the map but just relied on the Satnav which took me through 7 or 8 miles of narrow, skittery, icy lanes. The temperature which had been slightly above freezing as I left Chester was now, four hours later, solidy into minus figures. I parked in the signed area and walked the five minutes or so to the village hall for check in.
The Winter Cross is so named because is follows four out-and-back legs from the Meonstoke village hall base, each of which roughly follows a main compass point direction. The first goes north along a disused railway line, 5k each way, a nice little warmup, the second and third east and west respectively, both mostly along the South Downs Way and 10k each way. This completes the 50k event but for those carrying on the fourth leg goes south for another 10k each way along the railway line again.
|The Winter Cross Course|
At the short briefing RD Phil Hoy suggested we walked up the steepest hills, promised that there might be one or two slippery sections but it wouldn't be a mudfest, but also that there was a very big unavoidable puddle about 500m from the start - "more like a lake" - and that we would all get wet feet. At 8am the assembled field trundled off.
The front runners saw the lake and its icy coating, decided this was really no way to start the day and looked around for alternatives. Fortunately, the lake was clearly a seasonal feature of the path to the railway line and the local dogwalkers had established a way around it through a bit of wood and up and down a couple of little slopes, and this is the way that the vast majority of us chose to go. We kept our feet dry but funneling around 130 runners at a mass start into a singletrack with two stiles was not going to be quick, and it was five minutes or so before I actually got running again; we'll call that logistical delay number one, the significance of which will become apparent later on.
It was a pleasant enough run up the railway line, gradually ascending all the way up to the turnaround point and of course a nice gentle cruise back. It was still pretty cold as the sun was not up yet but with almost no wind quite comfortable. Back at the first checkpoint outside the village hall I had a quick drink and carried on. With drink stations every 10k there was no need to take a water bottle. I just had a bumbag with a collapsible cup and a windproof top as there was no prospect of rain. The drink stations all had a good selection of snacks as well so I didn't bother to carry any food either.
The start of leg 2 saw a sample of the trickiest ground of the day, narrow country lanes with almost invisible black ice on top, so we skated our way carefully for a mile or so to join the safety of the South Downs Way. This followed a series of fairy gentle ups and downs across fields, through woods and the odd bit of farm road to the checkpoint at the turnaround 10k further on. The sun had come up as we started the leg giving us wall-to-wall blue sky, and with a couple of inches of snow covering the downs, lovely views all round. The ground under foot was mostly frozen with just the occasional ice covered muddy puddle so the going quite easy. I wasn't going at a particularly quick pace, I was having no real problems from my knees so everything felt pretty good. The homeward part of the leg was equally pleasant.
Phil had said that this was the toughest leg so with that in mind I had decided to see how I was feeling after it was done before setting any targets for the finish. As I slid down the final bit of lane back to the hall checkpoint again I saw that I had averaged 11:44 minute miles so far so I felt that aiming for a sub 12 minute mile average for the race was about right. I needed to go to the toilet so I went in to the ones in the hall but had to wait a few minutes for one to become free. Let's call this logistical delay number 2, the effect was that when I set out on the westerly leg 3 my average had gone up to 12:15, so a bit of work to do.
Phil had warned us that the longest hill on the course was at the start of leg3 but "it does end eventually". After a brief but sharp downhill and a couple of fields we were into it. I started out jogging but after a while decided that was taking a bit too much effort so I probably walked the final two thirds of it. It was about two miles long overall and I'm sure most people ahead of me will have run it all. It started up a narrow lane, but thankfully there was no ice on this one, then for the last bit went up an easy track to the summit of "Beacon Hill". It was great to reach to top, obviously because it was the end of the hill but also because we now had this two miles of great downhill to look forward to on the way back. An interesting feature of this course format was that you were always passing faster runners on the outward section of each leg and slower ones on the homeward stretch, so for the next mile or so of this one it was good to encourage returning runners that they had almost reached the top of the downhill! The remainder of the leg out to the final (for us) turnaround was gently undulating jeep tracks and forest paths, fairly fast ground so I set about working on my average pace.
I hadn't chatted to many people along the way but about a mile before the turnaround I caught up with Charles, who was a local runner for this race but who had done the Lakeland 100 five times so we had plenty of common ground to talk about. He was doing the longer 45 mile event so still had 20k to do when we got back to the hall. Our pace seemed to be bringing my average down nicely, so we stayed together on the homeward section until we reached the top of the long hill.
It's never easy to set an overall time target for a race because unless you've done it before, you don't know what the distance is - "50k" might mean anything up to two or three miles either side of this, that's just the way ultra running seems to work. But by now it looked as it was going to pan out at around 32 miles according to my watch, and if I got a bit of a wiggle on there was a chance I could get under 6 hours for the trip. I used to think this wasn't important, but having finished a "Lakes in a Day" in 15:00:40 and even worse a West Highland Way in 26:00:05, I'm now conscious that if I happen to be within a shout of an hour barrier as I approach the finish I may as well put in at least a bit of effort and try to get under it.
Understandably Charles didn't want to change his comfortable pace so I wished him well and set off down the hill, which proved just as enjoyable as I anticipated. Near the bottom I caught another runner who waved me through as he felt I was going a lot faster. I told him we were on for 6 hours if we kept going so he then tagged along. I wasn't looking forward to the short uphill but we dug in and caught another runner who was walking, and encouraged him to join us. Looking back, without logistical delays one and two this would all have been so much easier, but probably not as much fun.
The three of us carried on the final couple of hundred yards to the finish line, finishing in 5 hours 59 minutes and 7, 8 and 9 seconds respectively. Close, but job done. I had eventually got my pace down to 11:14 which I was quite pleased with; I'd actually sort of run for most of an event - I haven't done that for a year or two. We were each presented with what I think is the biggest medal I've ever got for finishing a race - they obviously believe in bling in Hampshire, we speculated that it might affect fuel consumption on our journeys home - and to top it all a mug of mulled wine at the finish. The event carried on being well-appointed, with nice warm showers and cups of tea and soup.
But my longish day was wearing on so I had to set off for the trip back to Chester. All was fine until a bit south of Warwick when I felt I might start to nod off, so I pulled into the services there. My intention was to try the trick of a shot of coffee followed by a short sleep, but I was beginning to seize up a bit by now and during my hobble/slide across the frozen-snow-covered car park I suddenly felt chilly and hungry so the sleep was replaced by a visit to Burger King. That seemed to do the trick and I finally arrived home in time for a second dinner at around 8pm. I slept pretty well.