Monday, 28 November 2016

Race Report: The Wooler Trail Marathon, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cheviot

When I finally looked at the elevation profile for this race, I genuinely laughed out loud in equal parts joy and slight hysteria. Lumpy stuff for sure! It had been hanging around on my calendar for a while with a question mark next to it; since I wanted to not only get some serious vert in my legs over the next few months in preparation for the UT110K, but also get some experience in winter conditions, this was perfect and a short conversation on Twitter about AL races was really all it took before I was signed up and wondering what the heck I'd let myself in for.

The week before involved some fairly anxious weather watching - with my navigation "skills" I wasn't keen on a whiteout - and jokes on Twitter about hypothermic death and becoming the 'Green Boots' of the Cheviot ("Ah, there's Ben's frozen corpse. Time to take a bearing of 207 degrees!"). By the morning of the actual race, however, the conditions were pretty decent.

Registration and kit check were at the YHA in Wooler itself and, aside from briefly having the wrong number, went seamlessly. There was an incident with a toilet door that didn't lock properly but I figured if that was the worst thing to happen all day then I was doing alreet! Met up with Dave and Tricia, both of whom had #legsoot, and endured the ensuing banter about my decision to don "man-tights" (a decision I at no stage regretted!). All good fun, and passed the time nicely.

The safety briefing was direct and to the point - essentially "follow the signs, you can't get lost (I chuckled wryly!), and get off the summit as quickly as possible" - and then we were filing past the RD, Garry, to get to the start area. Met up with Paul and Richard, another NFR type, and had a natter before the gun went off.

Unusually, I had something approaching a plan for this race. I've been doing a lot of training in L1 lately, and my pace at that HR has steadily improved. The idea was, then, to tackle at least the first 15k - Cheviot, essentially - in no more than L2, even if that meant walking (which it inevitably would up that kind of climb). This would hopefully prevent lactic flooding and save the legs for the more runnable stuff where I felt I'd be able to make up at least some lost places.

The worked solidly to begin with, and the climb up the Chevy was relatively uneventful actually. Clag was down by the time we came off Scald Hill and began the ascent proper, but the route was well flagged and I had the GPX in my watch in any case. Much of the climb was, as I expected, hands-on-knees 'tactical hiking', but I still managed to move at a reasonable clip and actually overtook some folk. Upon reaching the ladder stile I was directed onto the slabs that cross the summit and headed to the trig point.

Summit conditions
(Copyright: One of the Trail Outlaws... If anyone knows who I'll gladly put the correct credit on, or remove if preferred)

Visibility was low so it felt like I was the only person up there, and it was so cold my eyebrows genuinely froze. I had been a bit wary of ice on the slabs as I then headed north on the Pennine Way but, actually, they weren't too bad. Took it steady just in case, but had no disasters.  Where the slabs stopped, however, and we had steep grassy descents, it was a different matter. Grassy, they were not. Instead, they were green-frozen-slides-of-death-and-potential-ankle-breakage. As my regular reader will know, slippery techy descents are not my forte, and these sections pretty much put paid to any plans I had on making up significant time on the downs. I couldn't commit to the descent, and ended up gingerly picking my way down (and still losing my footing a few times!)

This was par for the course for a good few kms. Can't remember now where things became more runnable; I was definitely moving at reasonable pace by 25km. At that point it became a more "normal" trail run, albeit one with some pretty chewy climbs still. The clag was less present and I got the odd stunning view from this point onwards as the route headed east along St. Cuthbert's Way.

By the time I was through CP4 my quads were definitely feeling it, and all I could think about was the cheese sandwich waiting for me back at the YHA. My fuelling had consisted of a litre of Tailwind and some ClifBars should I want them (I had one before setting off and one about half way) and that had worked pretty well. I was just tired by this point. The final few kms passed fairly uneventfully for me, barring a very minor not-paying-attention-and-setting-off-in-the-wrong-direction incident at CP5, but that was quickly rectified by a shout of "UP THE HILL!" from the marshals! From this point on it was really just a case of running it in to the YHA.

I crossed the line in 5:12, which meant that the suggestion in the briefing to double your marathon PB and subtract 30 mins was pretty solid for me. This got me 18th place which, whilst not the top 10 I would have liked, was a fair reflection of the day and something I was more than happy with given that it was my first outing of that type in winter conditions. Had the descents been more runnable by me I think my plan would have worked well and I would probably have placed a little higher, so it's definitely worth a bit more experimentation.

Hot soup was waiting for me in the YHA so, after picking up my t shirt and medal, I availed myself of that (and the aforementioned cheese sandwich) whilst catching up with HellsBells, who had tackled the "half Mary". Then, it was back home to see the family for at least some of the day(!)

A fantastic, well organised, and very safe race from the Trail Outlaws. Thanks to everyone involved, especially the marshals standing around in the freezing cold. Massive fun, and I fully intend to be back next year.

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