2013 has so far been a pretty much disastrous year with breaking my leg in February & then being told I may need an OP to sort it out. With my head down I went into quite a depressed time cancelling nearly all my races & events for the year. (Riprun, GUCR,Spartathlon)
**Many thanks to the Mrs for putting up with me when I was really down & again thanks to my friends for helping to keep my spirits up**
So combined with recovering from injury & being really busy at work I’d only kept the one race on my Calendar as I was told I couldn’t defer it. The UTLD100 which I dnf’d. (Boo hiss boo) No surprise there really though as my longest run since Feb in training for the race was only about 8miles & I pretty much didn’t think I’d get further than 30miles, so getting to the 90mile mark was a huge bonus.
Having had such a “good” race after minimal training I’ve been pretty much looking forward to tackling my next race which was to be the Cotswold Way 100, a new race with a profile that looks like a heart rate monitor (I hate hills) & then taking on my new target race of Caesers Camp 100. So, when I was on the interweb on Thursday evening I saw a new race advertised by “Saxon Shore Ultra Trails”. The Thames Gateway, a 103mile race just round the corner from me down in Kent. Taking in parts of the NDW the Weald Way & the Saxon Shore Way it compiled the use of a route description, maps, signage & gps files to assist the runner in completing the route. Brilliant, that’ll do for me & I sent off an email to the RD asking if there was any chance of an ETD. They replied fairly quickly & said that there were Entries on the Day but had to be cash. No worries, just needed to get an O/S map of the area & I would be there. I picked the map up from Smiths on the Friday afternoon & emailed the RD with my definite intent to be there by 5:30am to register & have my kit checked etc.
Saturday morning came & I was up with the larks. Tucking into that breakfast of champions, the cheese & pickle sandwich I drove down to Eastling. I introduced myself to Mike the RD of Saxon Shore & duly handed my money over & got my pack ready for the Kit Check.
Mike “Have you got everything on the mandatory kit list”?
Mike “Ok then”
Me “Errr oh ok”!
Alarm bells should’ve been ringing there & then but no, the web site looked very professional & he must surely know what he’s doing.
Not many runners were doing this race but I recognised the Spartathlete Legend Alan Myles so we had a coffee & a good old catch-up while we waited for the race to start. As it goes we were chatting so much we almost missed the 2 min race briefing. Moving outside, we were still chatting like fishwives & we both forgot to set the signal on our watches, bit of a rookie error there but if that was the only mishap for the race then that’ll do me. Oh little did I know what was to come.
Starting the race at 7am, it must have looked a little funny as nobody wanted to be at the front & as we hadn’t started our GPS, we were really hanging it out at the back even to the point of stopping at the first corner for a few minutes while we found the signal. All the other runners disappeared into the distance but we just shrugged our shoulders. 100 miles is a long way & no need to stress about being at the back this early in the race.
Following the route description we started our race in earnest! Oh ok, we started our race laughing & joking. I had a feeling this was going to be good fun. We quickly caught up the back markers who were already struggling with the directions but following them to the letter we were actually making good progress. One of the back markers told us he thought we were going in the wrong direction but we were sure we were fine so we pressed on. In fact we were on the right track as we were hitting specific points on the route description fairly well & a group of five of us made fairly good progress for a couple of miles. After a while Alan & myself upped our pace & left the three runners behind, still following the route description we pressed on feeling good, we passed the fallen tree as described & were on the lookout for the sharp left which we saw fairly easily as there was a runner coming back towards us & then turning to his right, he’d obviously missed it & added on a bonus mile. Turning left we made our way up the track, through the gate & into the field.
Still following the route description we turned right to continue up the right hand side of the field & that’s where it all started to go wrong! We were looking for farm buildings & chickens & eventually finding a road. No such luck! Running round the perimeter of the field we quickly came to the conclusion that something was very wrong with the route description. It didn’t tally with where we were at all. Out came the maps & using them along with Alans GPX data we decided that the best course of action was to retrace our steps a little & to see if we could find a suitable reference point from where we could adjust our directions & continue on towards CP1. This sounds a lot easier than it actually was as no matter what direction we ran in, we always seemed to move off track. (If we followed the GPX file we would have had to cross hedgerows & fences we couldn’t get through & private farmland)
Another course of action was needed, we made our way to a road & then followed it in the general direction of the GPX line until we could come across a decent point of reference & then readjust(again). After losing about an hour & running an additional 3miles we finally came to a point where everything made sense again, we even managed to pick up another errant runner there as well. Ellen Cottam who went on to come 3rd in the race. She had gone a completely different way to us but had finally managed to get herself to the same point at the same time. We cracked on, having a bit of laugh that two of the most experienced runners in the race were so rubbish at reading the instructions. (At this time, we still both thought that they were up-to the job in hand) Making our way through the next field we headed towards the corner to pass through the “rope” gate (Electric fence) I did suggest it was Ladies first here but Ellen politely declined….
Passing through the next sections of the Route Description, we made it to the Windmill, it was here we saw two other runners heading towards us. The chap wasn’t very happy & he launched into a tirade against us! I told him to calm down a little as everybody’s been a bit lost so far but that we’re back on track again now. I don’t think he believed me & he had another moan.
“ Look mate” I explained, “We’re only following the route description, no good moaning at us, now we’re off to the corner to try & meet the road”
He said that there wasn’t an exit at that corner & if truth be told, it didn’t look like there was one until you got really close, then you saw it tucked behind a bush & a tree. As we exited that field, you could hear him shouting to his running mate that we were using GPS & he was using a map! To be fair, it didn’t really matter what the heck you were using at that time, nothing really made any sense. I know we shouldn’t have laughed, but it did give Alan & myself a little chuckle as we’ve both been in his situation before & raging against other runners never helps you. Back onto the route & within 30mins we’d reached CP1.
We told the chap at the cp where the route description had been wrong as everybody so far had been lost, we also told him to put his tin hat on as the grumpy chap was approaching.
Moving on from CP1 we were now on the NDW & on territory I could recognise. Not the half I know really well but at least I I’d run this route a few times, although always from the West to the East & never the other way round. On the flip side this is where I also realised that the route description had basically been lifted from another race completely & that it was in fact next to useless from here on in!
An example of the description was from CP1 at Lenham to Cp2 at Detling. It reads as follows:
***Turn right from the aid station to continue along the road following NDW markers all the way to Detling.
Arriving at Detling, cross the main road via the footbridge (Marked NDW). Take the steps down the right hand side of the bridge to cross the road and enter Detling Village Hall (directly opposite) –Aid Station 2.***
Sounds fine & that actually works if you’re running the race from the West to the East, however, we were going from the East to the West so if you crossed the bridge you would’ve missed the village hall. I passed on this information to the CP crew who didn’t have a clue that the course was reversed from the route description. I suggested that they make some signs for the runners behind & to post them at the corner of the approach road so they didn’t try to cross a busy road in able to follow the description. These were put out but having nothing to secure them with crew & staff did their best & put them where they could.
This wasn’t the last of it though as the description then instructed the runners to “Turn right out of the hall & follow the road ahead & round to the right, then take the first left into Pilgrims Way(Signposted NDW) Continue along until reaching Blue Bell Hill Visitors Car Park-Aid Station 3!
Again, for those of you who know the route, that would have taken back along the NDW towards the cricket club at Detling & basically retracing your steps to the CP at Lenham.
This wasn’t looking good at all, It was becoming apparent that the organisers hadn’t recced the route at all & we’re relying on a route description from another race that would have been run in the opposite direction! Laugh!? We were probably a little too bewildered not too.
Running on to CP3 at Blue Bell Hill, it appeared that it was staffed by folk who were crewing other runners & Karen Webber was taking my number & time!? I told her about the route description being really bad & that it was looking like it was going to be a long day out there. She replied that it was a joke & that nobody seemed to know what the hell was going on. However Alan & myself were still in good spirits & still fairly warm despite it having been raining since the very start of the race & so we cracked on towards the next CP.
Alan started to struggle a little here with sore feet but we pressed on as best we could ignoring the route description & relying on my limited knowledge of the area. We soon crossed the Double glazed bridge at Rochester & shortly afterwards arrived at CP 4. This is where serious alarm bells started to ring. I saw Wendi Witton there again, she was supporting Ellen but other than that there was just a chap sitting by a car in a hi viz vest, a small bowl of sausage rolls & a bottle of coke. No pen or paper to record us going through the cp. We left there & were starting to discuss just how bad things were starting to appear. We were however both experienced enough to know that when you have a bad CP, the next one is normally fine so it wasn’t really a problem for either of us.
Aiming for CP5 we were running fairly slowly now due to Alans injury & two runners caught us up , Ellen Cottam & Ian Brazier. I’d seen Ian at a race I’d swept earlier this year & had a quick chat with him about the route, he was fairly confident as he’d done a fair bit of recceing for the race & so was ploughing ahead as best he could. Alan at this time was really starting to struggle & so told me to run on ahead. I made the decision to move forward & wait for him at CP5 Luddesdown Village hall.
I reached CP5 just after Ellen & Ian & was quite surprised when I saw there was no staff there, just a bit of food on the side & some water but no CP crew at all! Seriously perturbed at this I asked one of the other runners crew what was happening & she replied that they’d all left & asked her to do the logging in. She was left to her own devices & she had her own runner to look after. I said that she should phone the RD & ask for some replacement staff as soon as possible. I waited at the CP for Alan for as long as I could & then had to press on as I was getting cold. Quickly catching up with Ian & Ellen we all ran on towards the Pier at Gravesend & CP 6. We picked up another runner (Ben Dooley) around here & the four of us made relatively good progress. The rain was still coming down fairly heavily but it was quite warm & so I was still in just my t-shirt & still in good spirits.
Arriving at the CP in Gravesend, it was in a gazebo & staffed by 2 crew, things were looking up. That was until I talked to them & neither of them had a clue what the race was or how far we were running. Again, alarm bells started sounding… Seriously, how can you crew a race & not have a clue what it’s about or how far it is? I spent a while in this CP as the weather had now started to deteriorate quite rapidly & was now starting to get cold. I donned my waterproof jacket & running with Ben we cracked on towards Cliffe & my drop bag with my night gear in it. To be honest, after seeing the state of the organisation I wasn’t holding up much of a chance of my gear being there & was fairly glad I had a fleece & a torch in my backpack (Just in case).
Surprisingly enough, the Cp was there along with my drop bag. A little chap took my number & when I asked where the food & water was he directed me towards a bin on which was a plate of sandwiches totally covered in dirt & some water.
“What the heck happened here”!?
“You can eat these”
“Don’t be so f*cking daft mate, I don’t want bloody food poisoning”
At this point Karen came over & told me that was how they found them tucked up against the wall, bloody glad I had stowed away some food in my drop bag along with my night gear.
Again, laughing at the absurdity of it, Ben & myself left the CP & headed towards Upnoor. We reached Upnoor without any drama apart from taking the low route instead of the high route, again I don’t think there were any staff at this CP although I could be wrong. It was basically staffed by the crews of runners. Now, this is a fairly good thing but if I had gotten there last then there wouldn’t have been anybody there at all. (Keep this is mind now)
Out of Upnoor & on towards Gillingham, Ben & myself were in great spirits now as every mile we covered was a personal best for him & so we cheered for every beep of his watch. We cheered that is until we reached Gillingham. Crossing the Medway we followed the signs for the SSW until, well they ran out of signs. Using Bens map, we found that we were running way off the route but the signs were non-existent so we couldn’t confirm exactly where we were. After a couple of wrong turns & some backtracking we decided to ditch the signs & to trace our own route towards the next CP. Following the main roads & in conjunction with his map we finally made it the park where we discovered that the CP was in entirely the wrong place altogether! Luckily Bens crew had found where it was & redirected us towards them. Arriving at the CP we found that it consisted of two very wet CP staff & a cardboard box of food perched on top of a fence. No shelter, no gazebo, not even an umbrella to shield the poor buggers from the now torrential rain. Not too sure if they took our numbers but they told us that only one other runner had been through. Didn’t really surprise me as according to the route description they were in the wrong place anyway.
Ben was now starting to feel the race & was talking about stopping, dismissing this I encouraged him to keep moving as we had broken the back of it & had just over 30miles to go. Ok he said, lets run to the next CP. ***Good attitude, if in doubt, play it CP by CP***
Pressing on, we reached CP 10 an hour later where Ben had a sit down, a hot drink & some food. I took the time to catch up with Traviss Wilcox who was going to be pacing a runner in from that point. We both talked about how bad the organisation seemed to be on the race & Traviss told me that the feedback on the last couple of races had been fairly poor but that the RD hadn’t made any significant changes with the structure of his races.
Moving on from this CP & Ben was now struggling badly & he told me that he was going to give it just two more miles to see if he could carry on, I didn’t say anything to him just nodded my agreement. At least he had left the CP & that is 50% of the battle. However within 2miles he said that he’d had enough & that he’d given it his best shot. I knew he’d done his best & only said that it would be a shame to DNF now & to make sure that was really wanted he wanted to do. I didn’t want him asking himself “What if?” on the following morning. No, he was adamant he couldn’t go on & was cold, tired & totally soaked through. We shook hands & I told him what a tremendous effort he’d put in for his first 100 & that I was sure he’d smash his next attempt at the Centurion Winter 100.
After I left him , I really cracked on & upped the pace considerably, passing another runner who was being led back along the course towards CP10 by his pacer, he looked really rough & the weather at this time wasn’t helping with the rain starting to come down even harder than it did at the Lakeland 100 a couple of weeks previously. In fact at one point I even wondered if Paul Ali & his infamous hat were running this course…..
Running as fast as I could towards the next CP I was following the coastline until the route headed slightly inland, joining the road I kept going for what seemed like miles, even to the point where I wondered if I had gone wrong & was debating with myself whether or not to turn around. No, I was fairly confident that I was still on course & was very relieved when I finally saw another SSW sign telling me to turn right into a field. Following the signs, I ran through the field, then a farm, then an orchard & then into a field where they farmed Turf! Crossing the newly cut turf field I then ran through another orchard & continued my way down towards a road. Hitting the road I had the Medway in front of me & so I turned right to keep the river on my left & ran on. Fairly soon I saw what looked like a very familiar set of road signs, uh-oh!?! Something was amiss here. I told myself that I’d be ok unless I saw a Horse Farm sign on my left along with some “Test” Speed cameras. Turning the corner, there they were! Oh bollocks! I’d run a complete circle. Losing about two hours & adding about six or seven miles onto my run.” Oh Allan you Dickhead!”
For the last three or four hours the rain had been so heavy that if I had taken my map out it would have disintegrated within seconds & so I had made the conscious decision to keep it under wraps until the weather improved. Knowing that all I had to do was to keep the river on my left I carried on along the road & after about an hour the rain stopped. I ran up to a junction in the road & knew I couldn’t go wrong again as I had lost a fair bit of time doing my orchard rounds….
Pulling the map out I saw that I had just missed a turn on the SSW & that if I carried on I would miss a chunk of the course out, so I turned around & jogged back down the road for 300 yards before picking up the SSW again. Turning right I was again on the SSW & I cracked on towards Kingsferry bridge & CP 11. I got to the point I thought was correct for the CP & there was nobody there! I couldn’t believe it, no cp staff nor crews! Just a big hole where a checkpoint should be, knowing that the last cp was in the wrong place I scouted around for 30mins or so looking for any signs of life so I could register actually being there. Nothing! “Bugger this, I’m off”, Staying on track I knew the next part was going to be tough as I had to navigate through another large town & if the signs were as sparse as in Gillingham then I would be in trouble. Pre-empting this I had the map out as I was running & already plotting a course through the town relying on the major road junctions rather than the SSW signs. As it happens it wasn’t too bad & although I went wrong once, having already plotted a route I was soon back on track & moving steadily towards the next CP at Swale Marina.
I was starting to feel the race myself now, & having done over 100 miles I was still on my way to the 90mile mark at the next CP. I was still in good spirits though & making what I thought was reasonable time & then I got to CP12 or should I say, the bottle of water left in a hedge CP! Again, I couldn’t believe it! I was still well within the cut offs but again, there was no CP staff here! This race was now becoming a farce for me & thankfully Ellens crew were there & so gave me a much needed sugar hit with a bottle of coke. I was asking where the hell everybody was & what had happened to the CP. They explained that it was just a bottle of water in the bush & that was it! Bloody hell, this is a joke, no cps, dodgy route description & no signs to tell you where to go. No wonder I was grabbing bonus miles everywhere.
Looking at the map, it was telling me that two national trails were heading out from this point & both of them were going to Oare & supposedly the next CP. Which one do I take? I’d given up on the route description by now as that was completely untrustworthy. Ellens crew were understandably angry at the lack of assistance to the runners & were urging me to plot a route onto the finish & to forget about Oare as there was more than likely no CP there anyway. Feeling worn out, I was actually thinking about it but then it wouldn’t have sat right with me deliberately missing out a CP.
Knowing there was only a couple of us left in the race but not knowing exactly how many, I told them I would be taking the upper route to Oare & to pass the message on to Ellen which way I went.
Leaving the CP & feeling refreshed after my sugar hit I raced up the road & that’s where it really hit the fan! I saw a van coming down the road & the driver flashed me to pull over, it was one of the CP staff I’d seen at CP1 the day previously. We both stopped & the conversation followed.
“Where have you been? Mikes given up on you & you’re out”
“What!? What are you on about, there hasn’t been any CPs for half the race, how the hell can I be out?”
“He’s phoned your wife to ask if she’s heard from you”
“Of course she hasn’t heard from me, I haven’t sodding well phoned her, why has he done that”
“Because he hasn’t had any record of you running for ages”
“Well of course he hasn’t, there hasn’t been any CPs for half the race, now if he had set the race up properly there would be great record”
“Anyway mate, you’re out”
“Like fuck I am, I’ve got well over four & a half hours to do thirteen miles, I’ve hit every cp well under the cut-off, he is not going to close this race early because there’s only a couple of us left in! You better get on that phone & tell him to ring my wife & to make this right for her! She will be worried sick now.”
Losing my temper now I asked him where the hell the CP staff were? He replied that he was here now. Unacceptable I said, that’s no good to the bloody runners turning up when you’re not there.
Knowing that I was in the right, he agreed to let me carry on but also said that the route to take was the coast road & so I had to turn around. I asked if he was sure as the route description was really poor, he replied that as far as he knew the 60mile runners had no issues with this part of the course. Turning round again, I retraced my steps back past the CP where I saw the chap probably giving the same news to Ellen. Starting to gun it now & feeling very angry about the whole situation, I was doing nine minute miles & hammered it all the way down to Oare although I knew I would pay for it afterwards. Speeding through Oare I saw Karen again & told her I wasn’t stopping as I would probably explode at somebody.
Using a combination of the dodgy route description & the map I negotiated my way down to Eastling along a very circuitous route & even passing a sign telling me the finish was only two & a half miles away. The only problem with that was I had to run in the opposite direction from there. Not really what you want to see when you’re nearly on your knees & having done over 115miles. Turning left & heading down the hill I wondered if I was doing the right thing & if I was going to regret not taking the direct route but, putting my faith in the map & route description, down the hill I went.
Feeling very tired now, with the after effects of my 9mm I was now walking more than running & starting to lose my focus on my position on the map. A fatal mistake at the worst of times but I knew that I just had to watch out for the entrance of the Belmont estate & I would be nearly there. Run/walking I made it down the road where I saw Lisa Hewitt, another of Ellens crew standing by a gate.
“This way” she said, “you have to go to the end of the field & through the gate on the left”
I really was tired now & just couldn’t place where I was on the map, “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure I’ve just run down here from the finish”
“It doesn’t make any sense to me, It doesn’t look like that on here”
“Honestly Allan, just go to the end & you’ll see the gate”
No idea why I was arguing with her but the map & description just didn’t make any sense to me at all at that point so I waded through a massive puddle to get to the gate she stood by. Fairly sure she was giggling at me now, I must have looked a bit of clown, down trodden, soaked through & just trudging dejectedly through a puddle like a sullen child. Reassuring me that I was on the correct path she said I had about a mile to go.
Brilliant, lets crack on. So I upped the pace (Slightly) & ran on. Making my way to the end, I saw the gate, went through it & then started to rely heavily on the route description & looking out for the marker tape & a sharp right hand turn. Ha ha, no marker-tape anywhere, no surprise there then but I did see the sharp right & headed down it. Through the next field & into the Church where I saw Karen & Wendi, I told them that I couldn’t really focus on the pages now & to point me in the right direction of the finish line. No problem they said, you’re almost there, we’ll run you in.
A couple of minutes later I crossed the finish line in 2nd place to absolute silence! There was nobody there. Oh bloody hell, all that way & everyone’s buggered off home. Not too worry, Mike the RD & a couple of volunteers came out of the kitchen & clapped me in. Mike handed me my buckle & even though I wasn’t the happiest of people with the organisation of the race I still shook his hand & said thanks for the late entry.
Another 100 mile race finished & quite possibly one of my toughest, not due to the terrain or the weather but more due to the fact that nobody seemed to know what was going on & the fact that I was always double checking everything I did, not because I am extra careful but because I had to be extra careful with regards to every aspect of the race. Having had a week to contemplate on the events, I will be composing an email to the RD to highlight some valid points about where I thought the organisation went wrong & also to point out that his duty of care amounts to a lot more than a plate of dirt covered sandwiches & a bottle of water in a hedge.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned here & let’s hope Saxon Shore listen to folks concerns. The race has massive potential & could be a great one to do in future as long as the oversights are addressed. Otherwise, unless you’ve got bags of experience & a great crew behind you then don’t do it.