About two weeks ago I entered the Surrey Hills Challenge 60k Ultra. It was a very ‘last minute’ entry but I’d been considering it for a few weeks. I always feel a little less pressured when having a disorganised running plan. I keep it fluid and just do what I want to do, when I want to and if it fits in with life. The only really big planned events I have are the 100 milers. So, the first thing I did after entering the Surrey Hills was to do a good old bit of Strava stalking. Does anyone else do this? I looked up previous race results for this event, then searched Strava for random finishers and looked at their GPX traces. This is to get a better idea of the ‘true’ elevation and profile of the course. I like to get an
idea of when and where I will be climbing, descending and running on the flat. I find a lot of events claim big total elevation whereas the reality isn’t as bad. This is a comforting thing – “Hey, it won’t be that bad!”
For those that don’t know, the Surrey Hills Challenge Ultra takes the Greensand Way path from Haslemere to Denbies Wine estate in Dorking. It does go a lot further (about 100k or so in total). The race organisers send out a lot of information before the race about all the interesting landmarks that you’ll encounter on route. Plenty! There are a number of aid stations provided by the organisers along the route where you’ll find all the usual tasty treats. There are hills. A good number of them in fact, totalling about 5,500ft in total. Some of the terrain is quite challenging and if there has been a lot of rain which we had, many of trails become like small streams with the way the path is shaped. The event does also run a number of other distances so participants have the option to enter different distances. The ultra was on a route I’d never run before so I was pretty excited to run it. Before I entered this race I had been concentrating on getting some speed back. After my Centurion SDW100 miler earlier in the year I have been wanting to get some speed and turn in my legs again – always a struggle after a big race like that. I have been concentrating on interval sessions, threshold runs and tempo runs. But on the side I’ve included my weekly long runs and a few marathons too.
So, speed going well, legs going well, no injuries I found myself on the morning of the race. It was an early start. My alarm rang at 4:30am and I had slept in one of the kids bedrooms so not to disturb anyone. Tradition dictates that I eat a tub of ready made syrup oats and have a coffee. I had packed the day before so all my kit was spread across the floor and ready to slip on. I had even packed my two large plastic crates with all of my running gear into the car. Does anyone else keep their running stuff in a special place or container? The weather was really bad, but I knew once I was out in it and wet, I’d be fine. The drive to Haslemere was a bit hairy, but I arrived in good time (6am) and made my way through the rain and some dark roads to the village hall. I quickly registered upon arrival which was really easy and also treated myself to a lovely cup of coffee. I met up with a couple of other runners from the Portsmouth area (Matt from Runr – check them out!, and Stuart). We exchanged some pre race conversations and a couple of photos too. Not before long we had a bit of a briefing by a lady dressed as a Minion, and were then led outside to the start. Here we go…
The start kicked off in an alley, which took us directly away from the roads and straight onto the Greensand Way path. A small group of us shot to the front to get a bit of space (that’s always the excuse at least!). Not before long I found myself in the lead of the race but I knew it wouldn’t be for long before someone came up from behind. A runner James came past me after a while and we chatted for a bit while trying to not fall over on the early descents. Gosh, there was lots and lots of water and mud but fortunately plenty of twigs and leaves and grass to provide a bit more grip on the sides of the trail. We both commented about how pleased we were that we didn’t have to tread this ground after 100 runners had gone over it before us! James eventually sped off (but unfortunately later retired due to a bad knee) and not before long I found myself running beside a lovely guy called Will, who had a mate running a couple of
minutes behind us called Duncan. These positions remained for some time while we went backwards and forwards. Unfortunately I had a sinking feeling there were going to be some wrong turns in this race. Neither Will or I knew the route well and for some reason there were sections of signage that were just bizarre. You’d have great signage on some sections where it was clear which way to go, but there were a few sections where there were no arrows where you could take multiple paths. Quite a way into the race, Will and I approached a t-junction where we had the choice to get left or right. No arrows anywhere, however there was a guy who looked like he may have been a volunteer holding a bunch of papers in his hands looking confused. He signalled to us to go right after we had stopped to look around for an arrow, and so we followed his directions. One km later we got to another main road and clearly we’d gone wrong! Noooooo! Usually in these cases (it has happened before) I don’t have any fight left to make up the lost time and places however Will really kicked up the gears and we sped back to where we went wrong. I remember him saying “this is where the interval training will come in handy!”. Hopefully it did help, but my legs were getting well and truly spent way too early in the race. Once we had made our way back to the place we turned wrong, there was so sign of anyone there and magically, a huge pink arrow pointing to the correct path! *grumble meh*! It was definitely not there before hand. Really odd. Anyhow, before long we caught back up with Duncan and he confirmed no-one had gone past yet. Wow, that was lucky. That meant we were in 2nd and 3rd position again. Not before we long Duncan who was feeling terrible that day started to drop behind. He just couldn’t get into the run that day. We all have those bad races.
After about twenty miles or so, there were signs of cramp kicking in. The cramp sensation was strangely in my quads and very near the top and under my legs. Almost like a quad-groin cramp (?). Fortunately it never came to any major full on cramping but it did mean I had to really watch my footing. Any sudden slipping or near falling could have initiated a big cramp. The climbs and descents in the conditions were destroying my legs. I knew I was still in 3rd place though and so was trying hard to maintain a sensible pace. Will had really gone on strong and was now out of sight. I ran through much of the aid stations which contained the same usual things you’ll find – lovely treats. I hardly ever touch anything but Tailwind top up at the aid stations, but in the last big station I did treat myself to some flapjack and a few pieces of Mars bar. It was lovely. I usually stay well clear of this stuff, but as it was a shorter event and I was in the later stages of it, I knew it would be fine. With about 10km to go, a runner called Salim came flying past me looking extremely fresh and strong. I think I had slowed in this section of the race. I tried to keep up with Salim but he was running too well for me at that point and I saw him disappear into the distance
quite quickly. Ok, I’m now down to fourth. Still a great position and one I’m not used to. Nearer the end with about 5k to go, my feet were really sore and numb pretty much from the start. The water and mud had taken toll on my legs and body. The downhill sections had battered my quads. I was in a bit of a state and with only about thirty minutes to go the lead marathon runner came past in great spirits, looking very fresh too. He was really friendly and offered some kind words about it being flat/downhill to the finish. Awesome! He actually helped get my pace back up and we also navigated a tricky bit together where there were multiple paths we could have gone through. He finished a minute
or so ahead of me. Coming through Denbies Vineyard was simply amazing. Hills and hundreds of rows of grapes was a sight to behold. I could also see the sunlight was starting to break up the rain and clouds a bit and it was a glorious feeling. Before long I could see the finish line and the flags and I ran through absolutely shattered but feeling good too. My hands hit my knees and an official said something about “So you are 2nd finisher of the marathon!”. I replied that I was running the 60k and I got a “Oh congratulations, you are our 4th finisher!”. I was so pleased. I believe the first five finishers all came in under the course record too! Course record all round Here is a link to my Strava trace.
I caught up with Will at the end. He had finished in 2nd place. Such great running. He had kindly offered me a lift back to the start in Haslemere where my car was as he was going that way. It saved me having to get bus replacement services too. Thank heavens! Superb and very kind! We had to wait for Duncan to come through and he did in about 7th place. Brilliant running considering he’d had a really bad day out on the trails. We’ve all had them, but to finish a 60k race through those conditions is outstanding. I just missed out on a prize that day, but I was so happy to have had such a great day and met and chatted to so many cool people. One of those lovely days out on the trails. New ground and new routes are just fantastic. I’d recommend this run, although it was an expensive one to enter considering there was no t-shirt and photos you even had to pay for. Still, no price tag on the experience. It is always usually worth it.
What did I learn from this event? A few things. Downhills HURT. I’ve never experienced pain like it after a race which made walking down stairs really hard work. Hammering the downs really takes it out of my legs. I probably need to build some strength in my legs for any future events like this. I learned that I can run in the freezing cold and rain for over six hours and finish well. After two years with a few struggles on ultras I think I’ve finally hit a point where I can reason with myself enough to keep me going when it gets hard. Practice practice practice. I also realised that my nutrition plan mostly works. I keep it simple and minimal. Tailwind all the way, and listen to my body. If I fancy something, just eat it but keep it minimal and simple. Oh, and lastly …. Coke is the best recovery drink ever. I always buy myself two 500ml bottles – one for immediately after the run, and the other to have with a beast of a meal that night. Lovely.
Well done everyone and especially to all the winners. Well done organisers and race director. It was a lovely day out despite the weather. I might head up there again soon and run that trail again! Oh, and very very very lastly, check out my poor Hokas. Seems the ATR4’s also tear in the same spot the ATR3’s did. Seems these shoes just cannot with stand much wear and tear at all. Hoka – what have you done?!