What I love about ultrarunning events is their low key nature, some of them I have been on have no bells, no whistles and an unbelievable camaraderie between the runners.Challenge Running may well be the new boys on the block but they certainly know how to put a race on, other race organisers will learn a lot from these guys
The day started
The alarm went off at 5.30am and as usual this is the danger hour for me as I am terrible at getting up early but dragged myself out of bed to get ready. I was pleased to note that the heat pad I had put on my foot overnight seemed to have released the muscle in the extensor area and I could walk without discomfort, the run was on.
I jumped into the car with my drop bag and backpack and arrived in 50 minutes a little too early for my liking but as I turned into the car park I saw a rag tag bunch of runners huddling together in the far corner and as I jumped out of the car was welcomed into the throng. Registration was completed within the blink of an eye so I decamped to get a strong cup of coffee from the local petrol station.
Catching up with Allan Rumbles, my trusty co-Sweeper, we soon got our kit prepared and discussed our tactics and pacing. Our plan was never to be more than 20 minutes behind the back runner and by the looks of the pack, it was going to be a very fast race.
The Race starts
With military precision the Race Director, Lindley Chambers, called for us to gather and the rules were explained, last minute prep by the racers and they were off, Allan and I got our kit together, locked the car doors, dropped our kit into the trailer and about 10 minutes later were off on our run to help the fallen and lost.
There were 4 checkpoints along the way:
Checkpoint 1 - 7.9 miles
Checkpoint 2 - 15.8 miles
Checkpoint 3 - 25.4 miles
Checkpoint 4 - 34.9 miles
Finish - 43.1 miles
To Checkpoint 1
My initial reaction to this course was how flat it is in Essex compared to my training ground of Kent and the Downs but looks can be deceptive especially when running on a flat for a long time even the shallowest of hills can feel like a mountain. The other thing was that the ground in places was like iron and ankle turning stuff so care was needed. The instructions were clear, in plain English and a very novel idea of using blue and black ink for alternate instruction (more on that later)
This section had the biggest rise of 240 feet (73 metres) over 8 miles was nothing so we trotted out a gentle but very efficient pace and as I had run with Allan before happy that we would navigate with ease as we shouted out and double checked. Conversation flowed often diverting from the hallowed subject of running, old stories retold and gentle ribbing of comments made in the past.
We soon arrived at checkpoint 1 in a very sedate time and were looking to step through it quickly but were informed that 2 runners had not made it! Aghast that this had happened so soon into the race and knowing for sure we had not gone past anyone and had stuck to the course like a mussel to a rock we retraced our steps for a mile on what was to be a wild goose chase when we heard that they had raced through the checkpoint without their numbers being taken! We were not perturbed by this but were requested to hold back until cut off time so by the time we were released we were stiff and cooled down but still laughing and joking after one of the staff called me Jerry Rumbles after mixing our names up, it is silly things like this that keep you going.
This was a nice section with some really open areas and in the wind must have brought the temperature down to sub zero but the route took us through woodland, along ditches and hedges so we were able to keep warm. At one point I took off my hat and after 100 metres regretted it....jeez it was cold.
The wind was very sharp in places and I could now see that it was not uncommon in these parts due to the lack of natural cover and reaching the highest point in the course as Stock, Essex we passed an old windmill, all down hill to the coast now.
Although we were only at mile 16 I started to feel a little light headed and my blood sugar dropped so quickly got some drink into me with a cake bar I had snaffed from the previous checkpoint which soon kicked in and we got through to the much welcomed checkpoint 2 where I was able to poach a beautiful hot cup of coffee with sausage rolls and sweets. Small items that were a race saver for me, Warning heeded I grabbed some spare food and we ran out aware that the last runner had sufficient distance between us and them not to feel pressured but it was obvious we were catching them up.
To Checkpoint 3
Stepping out from the CP, it was obvious that Allan and I were in high spirits but for short periods we would quieten up when we had a difficult or good personal section however this was soon broken by some joke or a "long story of importance" that popped into our head at some point and we would continue on.
My ankle would remind me ever so often that it was not fully repaired and if it twisted on a hard piece of mud it made me whelp but it was not a real issue just annoying. At this checkpoint we stopped for a gossip with the staff and to let the back runners move away again and get some distance after all, they were well ahead of the cut offs.
To Checkpoint 4
Probably the strangest place I have been to for many a year was Maylandsea and Steeple, I'll leave it at that...it was strange, nobody in sight, hidden away apart from one kid on a bike who skittered away when he saw us to appear from a side alley a mile down the road as though he was a town spy.
One of my favourite moments was on the mud flats in this creek when we watched a flock of about 300-400 Canadian geese land and rest on a flat. I stopped, called out to them, then flapped my arms and with a cacophony of hooting and profanity they rose up in one mass to fly off.... a silly thing that raised my spirits. Checkpoint 4 was a stones throw away and as we trudged up the road a car stopped and in it we saw Paul Ali and 2 more runners who thrust a packet of flapjacks in our face which were soon devoured (I was feeling hungry now)
At checkpoint 4 we were informed the last runner was now walking and was not that far away. Allan and I, mindful of the now failing light donned head torches and moved off, I happy to navigate by map at this point, Allan by words as it was an almost straight line until the coast.
The End Game
Trudging out with a new spring in our steps we ran and speed walked the now very muddy ground. Here our "Serious heads" came out when up ahead we saw the single figure of a runner who was now walking. Knowing it was the last runner we pulled off but it was apparent now that she was waiting for us so we joined her. Assuring her that she was not under any pressure with time and we had no intention of pulling her off the course we joined up ensuring she was in front of us but it was becoming apparent (in my opinion) that she had the onset of hypothermia as the wind was bitterly cold now and the temperature was dropping fast.
So keeping her stimulated with conversation she and Allan chatted about the 100 Marathon Club and the various characters we know such that soon we were further exposed as we clambered up onto an ancient Roman defensive fort structure. My glove integrity failing, my Buff over my face I was looking forward to a hot drink and very soon after a great foot slog got to the end to the ever cheery Sue and Lindley allowing the lone runner to run across the line. I chose to duck into the church immediately, elation can come later.
The church had no electricity so in torch light we stripped down and got warm, dry kit on but was concerned when the last runner dropped to the floor unhurt but suffering from post-exercise shock when the blood moves away from the core muscles and you can feel feint. With expert assistance from Sue, the lady was soon up and about and in dry clothes ready to leave for our lift back to Chipping Ongar.
In all, a fantastic race concept brilliantly executed by the Challenge Running Team, one I would like to race next time.