After getting some speed back post TGC and having a relatively relaxed 3h22 marathon at the end of March I decided to throw away all the pace again because as usual my training plan is mostly non-existent or self-defeating. Having got home from a long Monday on site in Croydon, annoyed at only having glimpsed the beautiful spring weather outside the office or the car window, I saw there were still places for the inaugural Rose Of The Shires and promptly signed up for the Saturday as I needed to be outside enjoying the weather and not cooped up indoors. I also had nothing booked for April (still too slow/too young for London and not entirely sure I want to give Manchester marathon my £ until they get an unbroken period of cock-up free events).
Often Ultras sell out well in advance, but being the first year and sharing the date with SDW50 and a couple of other established events meant there was even entry on the day, although how many people casually sign up for a 54 miler I’m not sure. The preceding week was awash with mates on social media packing/repacking and making final checks for the SDW50 and I could remember how nervous I’d been this time two years ago for my stint on it. Fast forward and it’s Friday night before I’m uploading the GPX file to my watch and wandering around the house wondering where I left my Hokas. Surprising how complacency can creep up on you and a 54 mile event can start to be prefixed with ‘only’ purely based on having been stupid enough to do 100+ milers in the meantime.
Saturday morning arrives, I shove down my McDonalds breakfast and drive over to Brixworth Country Park just outside Northampton. No I’ve never heard of it either, but it’s a beautiful lake formed by a dam with a large visitor centre that crucially has toilets and a car park, the main requirements for nervous runners (parking is £5 for the day so bring change). The single loop makes logistics easy with none of the ‘I’m finished, now how the hell do I get back to my car?’ issues of point to point races. After registering and getting a coffee (£1 from the organisers) I make final preps and we’re off.
The organisers give a detailed map book which I’ve tucked in my pack as relying on GPX route on Garmin. It worked for the C2C so hoping this will be as easy. As with many ultras there seems to be a wide range of kit choices from shorts, vest and a water bottle to those with full on mountain expedition, waterproof trousers and spare tent in the backpack. I’ve got the mandatory torch which I hope I won’t need and a spare base-layer and raincoat just in case.
The course is basically one big loop of Northampton, sticking to the countryside and probably a 50/50 mix of footpaths/canal and farm fields with the odd brief road section as you come to checkpoints. I’ve gone for trail Hokas as the preceding couple of days has been wet but you’d be just as happy in road shoes and it’s only really a short section through Salcey forest that has much in the way of mud. It takes in two country parks, the aforementioned Salcey Forest, the Grand Union Canal (flashbacks to the GUCR race) and 21 quaint villages and towns following parts of the Nene Way, the Midshires Way and the Northampton Round. If you’ve run the C2C it’s very similar to the first half of that, with runnable countryside, ploughed fields and lots and lots of cattle gates and stiles. Where you do run on the canal it’s the scenic stretches by Stoke Bruerne and similar, not the rubbish-strewn sections through central London.
The GPX file was refined by the organisers the night before and uploaded for use. For the most part it’s spot on, with just the odd section where you doubt which side of the hedge line you need to be on through fields. You could pull out the maps and check or could run aimlessly on and have to crawl through the hedge when you get it wrong. Again. Four times in total for me.
There are 6 checkpoints at 6 to 8 mile intervals which is plenty. Each is manned by a local running club fighting to out-do each other. Highpoint was probably checkpoint 2 that had Prosecco, Guinness and WKD (remember that from when you were an underage kid?) along with the usual ultra food and cake. As with C2C timing is done on touch free Etag attached to your wrist with a Velcro strap and also backed up by manual bib recording at each station.
I had a vague goal of 8-9 hours for the course. As we set off it feels relaxed and I consider settling in with the front runners just to see what it feels like but instead hold back to a gentle plod and settle in with the main group. Typically whenever a runner pushes ahead they make a navigation error and are called back or held up by a recalcitrant cattle gate so the group keeps mostly together. The only time I really find myself pulling away is at aid stations where my grab and run approach is at odds to many who seem to hang out. At various times on the route we pass through horse paddocks and farmyards and admire lambs, alpacas (or lamas, who knows?) and young foals.
A few miles before the second aid station I bump into Jonathan, the local runner who saved my bacon on the TP100, both in terms of company and a lift back home afterwards. We talk about all things running related as we pound out the miles, missing the odd turn as we’re too distracted chatting about his double grand slam success at last years Centurion 100 and 50 mile events. Unfortunately it’s not been without some toll on his body and gradually his hamstrings start to tighten and he begins to struggle. Halfway comes in about 4h30 but neither of us is likely to maintain this pace for the rest of the race. We stick together up to checkpoint 4 but somewhere in the next seven miles the gap widens and I lose him behind, in a role reversal of TP100 when I had a sense of humour failure in the night, slowed to a crawl and had to watch him glide off into the darkness.
Come checkpoint 5 and I’m surprised to hear the aid station crew refer to the assembled competitors as being near the front. They’re remarking how the “fast runners” like us don’t eat much but as the rest of the pack comes through they’ll soon make a dent on the food. Mostly I’ve been running and chatting, don’t feel like a front runner and have no real idea of where I am in the race. The optimistic finish time of sub 9 hours is now a long way gone but I start to wonder if I could pull a respectable finish out the bag. I leave the aid station and catch up with some runners from Wellingborough & District AC and we stick together for a fair section of the remaining miles, with the same navigation or gate issues tending to keep us grouped. At the final checkpoint one of their group is forced to retire and we press on, now down into single figure miles to finish the event.
At around 50 miles the group slows and they wish me luck as they slow a little. The sun is definitely dropping as is the temperature and I want to finish without headtorch or jacket on. The navigation for the last four miles is very easy but also includes a seemingly massive hill to sap the last strength from your legs. Making the final run into the country park and a passer-by wants to stop for a chat. There simply isn’t a way to say “Sorry I can’t stop, I’m in a race” without sounding like a massive dick.
After a last turn into the car park I sneak in under 10hrs and a long way off my optimistic goal, having covered a little over 55 miles to get good value for money. Pleased and shocked to finish 9th, I wonder how many places I could have gained with a proper taper and without last weeks marathon in my legs. Closing in on 100 miles for the week is probably not ideal.
The event is well priced, a great route and expertly organised. It’s worth 3 UTMB points as well if that’s your goal. At the finish you get a medal and tech tee, shake the RD’s hand and get on your way. It’s definitely one I’d recommend for next year.