New Year’s Eve 2016 had my focus diverted to The Gut Buster. This is an event that I have previously participated in and had thoroughly enjoyed . It is also the third and final part of the Winter Trail Series I had entered; this one known as ‘The Classic’. There are 2 distances on offer in this race – 10km or 10 miles – and it usually sells out before race day, so if you are looking at running this one next time, make sure you get signed up in advance! The 10km race is 50/50 off-road/road, whereas the 10 mile race is 60/40. The course is over various terrains, including roads, trails, woodland paths, tracks, a ford, and various types of fields.
Those of you who have been following me closely, or know me personally, may know that I have been struggling the last few weeks with a knee injury. I will touch on that as briefly as I can, although there is a relevant point to it all and it has been a big part of my training complications for a few weeks! I had a pain in the outer lower corner of my left knee that manifested as a small niggle originally on my push bike attached to the turbo trainer at the beginning of the month. I rested it off and thought nothing more of it. It then developed into a slightly more annoying niggle, until it has become a pain and irritation to me, and my training. Strangely enough, it gets worse with swimming and doesn’t seem to bother me too much when I run. I had rested off before the Muddy Welly run, as I had explained in my previous post (managing an 8 mile run on 11th December, because I thought it was a 10 mile event, not a 10k (doh!) – my last long run), and it had not improved with rest.
I visited a physio on 21st December – nothing says happy birthday like a physiotherapist bending your legs in ways I am fairly sure they shouldn’t go – and they advised me that since they couldn’t find a physical problem, to keep training on it and come back when it was worse. I was informed that my left glute was weaker than my right (only I could get one weak arse cheek, much to the ridicule of a few friends), and was given some exercises to strengthen it, as well as foam rolling every day, in case it was ITBS (illiotibial band syndrome). I also had to try and find a pattern in my pain; something I had attempted the couple of weeks before going, but to no avail. I made a pain table, which I have been filling out like a weirdo in a lot of detail and I am yet to find a pattern.
I had some advice from a friend as well that my patella tendon could be tight, and she showed me a little exercise you can do to ease this. Don’t read the next couple of sentences if you are easily grossed out by this kind of thing, as my co-workers have been pulling vomiting faces when I do it – skip to the next paragraph – if not, read on! You have to have your leg straight, knee exposed, on a flat surface, with your quad relaxed, and you need to find the kneecap (it should move around a little with your fingers). Then, the idea is to gently move it up and down, then side to side, 30 times for each direction. It can feel weird, but I think it has been helping me out a bit.
The swimming pool shifted into its Christmas opening hours by the time I had seen a physio, so I am not sure if the pain is still there swimming (I am lucky enough to work all through the festive period, so no midday swims for me!). It has not been too much of an issue running, although I have been so cautious over increasing distance, getting obsessive over my running form and how my legs are tracking when I run, that I haven’t necessarily made much of a training gain over the last 10 days before The Gut Buster.
My mileage had dropped off almost completely for a week, had been low for others, and I knew that it would be a mistake to pile the miles on hard, especially over a mixed terrain course, as this could lead to further injury. With that in mind, I had a difficult decision to make. Something that went against every fibre of my being, and something that I had never done before. After a discussion with my sensible swimming partner, it was decided – I would be dropping down a distance on race day and running the 10k event, not the 10 mile. It was a decision I thought long and hard about, and one that was not easy to make, however I convinced myself it was the right one and that I hadn’t actually run the 10k route, so it would be a different challenge to the previous year.
Back to race day. It was a 6°C morning, the race start was 11am for 10 milers, and 11:05 for 10k runners, leaving plenty of time for a lie-in, or to do your local Parkrun! I had been interested, before injury, in running the local Reading Parkrun and then participating in the 10 mile event, but now I was downgrading the distance, I had to put my sensible head on and resist running a 5k on top of the 10 I had planned for later on.
All race parking was off-site this year. It doesn’t sound as bad as it does at first. You can park your car for free in the Mereoak Park & Ride, which is just off Junction 11 of the M4, where free shuttle buses run every 10 minutes to Butlers Land Farm, where the race is. They run from 8:50am to 10:20am, giving you plenty of time to get there, and the journey is only about 10 minutes long. There are portaloos galore upon arrival, a huge barn space to drop your bags off so they stay nice and dry, as well as a food stall and a couple of registration tents. This is all dotted about the farm courtyard and adjacent area.
I arrived at the farm with my wonderfully supportive boyfriend just before 10am, having had an enjoyable lay in and a pleasant, easy journey to the race. I picked up my number from the 10 mile tent, and headed over to the 10k one to let them know I would be doing the shorter distance; also feeling the need to protect my pride and explain that I had a knee injury (not that I had given up on training and got scared), although I am sure the lady did not have that much interest in it! Having successfully picked up my race pack, I headed into a corner of the courtyard sheltered from the wind to attach the necessary race bits. Number on, chip attached to laces, watch on, warm clothes attached to me until I needed to warm up – all good to go!
40 minutes and a trip to the ‘luxury loos’ later, I went for a warm up along the road and found a track (Byways on the signpost), which I thought would be a good woodland trail to get my legs moving in the right way for the race. I ran half a mile down there, encountering several male entrants of the race who had taken a liking to the trail for a slightly different use (a urinal) and then turned around and headed back to the farm, where I did a few exercises (high knees, etc.). It was plenty warm enough when you were running, although I was still glad to have a compression top on under my club vest for the cold air and compression tights on for my dodgy legs/knees.
Immediately after my warm up, I stretched and went over to the race briefing, which would start imminently, with an impressive collection of 632 runners huddled together. An entertaining breifing awaited us, as always with My Sporting Times, as we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to one of the race organisers, who ran through the usual bits and pieces, with promise of lots of mud (there would be no complaints of a lack of mud this year, they claimed) and unfortunately, for the first time for this event, a ford empty of water! After being reminded that ‘only a moron could get lost’, that it is meant to be fun, and that there was a couple of changes in the route, they were ready to unleash us all a little bit later than planned with an “Oggy oggy oggy, oi oi oi!”.
The start was at the same point as the finish this year, whereas we had walked up the road to the start line last year. I watched jealously as the 10 mile lot set off, wishing it were me (I must be mad), and then lined up near the front of the pack for the 10k race, hoping to get away from the mud/puddle dodgers before the bottleneck mentioned at the briefing happened near the start.
We were set off to a short count down into the first field, with a man playing a comical trombone tune, the likes of which you would find someone doing a silly walk to on a comedy sketch show. I giggled to msyelf as I pushed on through the mud, trying not to slip around too much – luckily my trusty Salomons were doing their job well. Turning a few corners in the fields, we soon reached a spot I was familiar with from last year as I ran a short distance across the road. Ahead, was a juicy hill to sink my teeth into. I recalled that it was fairly steep, offroad, and went on for a little while until it curves up and round a bend, leading to a lovely descent. I gritted my teeth, determined not to have to walk and pushed on to the top. I even passed the woman running with her extremely excited dog, giving myself a little pat on the back as I extended the gap between us.
You reach another road through the farm at this point, which winds round the beautiful countryside, passing some horses and eventually meeting the disappointingly dry ford. The chap that had turned up to film everyone running through, or avoiding the ford – shame on those of you – expressed his disinterest in filming it, and switched his camera off. I knuckled down and pushed on. There was another tasty hill up ahead and I was determined to keep moving.
I knew not to go too hard too fast, in case I encountered some knee problems and we were just shy of 2 miles into the race when the 2nd climb started. I remembered this one from last year, where my hamstrings had tightened up and it had been a real struggle. I was going to make it up there in one clean swoop this time. I plodded up, focusing not on speed, but just one foot in front of the other, and the next 50m of road. Soon I could see the brow of the hill and hear the marshals cheering everyone on, congratulating every runner who made it to the top. I certainly wouldn’t miss out on that!
Opposite the top of this hill, I spotted a faster runner leaving a trail and heading out to my right, whilst I turned to my left and was treated with the view of a downhill. I would be where that other runner was in no time, I thought. The downwards trot soon joined another muddy path with another little hill (see a pattern here?), but also a water station. I gratefully accepted a cup of water, downed it and continued up, feeling clumps of mud getting displaced by the tread of my shoes and hitting the backs of my legs. As you peak the top of the small incline, you are greeted by 2 points of interest – a 5km marker on the left (the halfway point – HOORAY!), and to the right, some ruins of a Roman town with some supporters cheering everyone on. I didn’t stop to read the historical sign, but chewed up the mud back down into a woodland trail, taking advantage of my shoes on this terrain.
The route through the woodland was undulating but fairly wide, which was quite pleasant as you could still manage to overtake, where people in their road shoes started to struggle with the mud-caked treads of their shoes. The path wound round for a while and then met a wide, gravel private road through some gates. There are quite a few gates in this race, which cause a short stop to squeeze through, and you can get a little bundled up here, but it didn’t put me off at all today. The gravel track meets another road breifly, before getting back onto a footpath, bringing me out where I had spotted that runner earlier and also the 4 mile point – excellent!
A short spell of tarmac lead me through another gate and into a long, rolling field, heading out onto a road. I gained some speed up here, overtaking people on the rougher parts of the fields, my shoes churning up the mud. As I hurtled further down the mudslide, more and more people were running wider, trying to find a grassier, sturdier piece of land to plant their feet into. I opted to stand my ground and positively plough through, which served me well until about 100m from the end of the field, where it was so muddy that I just had to trust my footing and glide through the mud.
I faced another familiar incline as I turned left out of the field, which again, I was determined to conquer. I took it in my stride, trying my best to stamp the mud out of the bottoms of my shoes for traction, and as I reached the top, bee-lining for a line of supporters with young children holding their hands out for some high-fives. I urged a man to keep running as I could see the familiar slump of I’ve-had-enough-of-running-uphill, but he was so close to the summit, that I urged him to continue: “well done, you’re almost there”. I got my high-fives in with the small supporters and earnt my downhill drop. The man came back past me, but I would see him again later on.
As you turn a corner here, round the long, winding lane, there is a further water station, where the 10 mile route re-joins the 10k route – a point I remembered from last year, where a cup of water at the top of a climb was a lovely little boost to get me going again around the 8 mile mark, if I recall correctly – and you could also hear the tannoy at race HQ booming across the countryside. We were close! As I descended again, I thought to myself, “Maybe I could have managed with the 10 mile route. This is half of that and I feel absolutely fine in my legs. My knee has hardly complained. It is going well!”.
That thought was put to rest a mere kilometer later, on the nose. I entered a field that was flat and could see the last split for the 2 distances. I took the right hand one for the 10k, through a gate, up a short, sharp hill onto a concrete bridge and spotted the 9km marker. As I reached this point, I entered another extremely lumpy field that twisted and turned your lower half every which way it could. My knee twanged. NO! I was on target for a sub-hour time, which I was feeling pleased about for a hilly cross country event. I was now in a battle against myself: “It’s only a kilometer; just push on! Grin and bear it – you will be fine!”, one part of me was saying. The other part was screaming at me, “There’s no point in injuring yourself further for the sake of a minute or so!”.
I opted for a sort of middle ground. Not crawling pace, but not racing. Enough to get me out of the lumpy field and onto the last finish straight through the famous cabbage patch that wasn’t looking too cabbage-y. This was it, the last 400m! It is a tough finish, but I find that makes it all the more rewarding. There is a camber to the climb, as you are going up the field on a bit of a diagonal. It is farmed into rows and super muddy, as well as pretty steep! But that close to the finish, you can’t give up! Or so I thought….
Don’t worry, it wasn’t me – I’m made of tougher stuff – but the man I had egged on earlier had slowed to a walk. I huffed and puffed, “Come on, you’re finishing wih me”, and with that he started running again with a thank you. We pushed each other on, trying to keep up and he caught my hand to finish together, but realised it was too soon and it was making running up the field awkward. We stopped after about 10 seconds, and just focused on reaching the top for a photo finish.
A few more grunts and groans and a lot more effort and we were crowned with our finishers medals; doubling up as a bottle opener for the evening’s celebrations (it did get some use!). There was also some mulled wine, mince pies and a bottle of water if we fancied. Soon me and my boyfriend were on the bus back to the car park, and on our way home.
I love this event and will definitely look at coming back again, as I seem to have a score to settle with both distances now! The 10 mile is definitely one that I would love to complete again, when I am in a better condition to do so. I think that since I had had such a good year, especially the last 6 months, it was disappointing to have to rein things in a little at the end, rather than go out with a bang, and I was also disappointed to not have been in the perfect position for marathon training in January. I will still be able to pick things up, having been cautious, and I have definitely made the right decisions so far, as the knee appears to be holding up OK and dare I say it, feeling better?!
A quick recap of the year sees me gain these PBs in the following distances:
1 mile: 00:07:34
5 km: 00:25:51
13.1 mi: 01:59:32
Here’s to a hopefully good and maybe even better year of sport in 2017!
Thanks for reading, as always.