You’ve got to test yourself and even I’ll concede that, occasionally, you have to do some training. This weekend was all about preparation for the Ridgeway Challenge and so in good spirits, early on Sunday morning, I headed out to the Vanguard Way Marathon.
I was joined on my quest for my next marathon medal by the GingaNinja and UltraBaby who had come along as my support team. Although for the purpose of this story UltraBaby will be retitled as ‘Klingon Rudolph’ due to her big red nose and bashed forehead caused a day earlier by a trip in the garden.
We arrived at Lloyd Park just after 8.30am to a few runners and the start line – I collected my number and was offered the option of some jelly babies or, in a slightly unusual turn, a dip into the shared pot of Vaseline. They had clearly read about my exertions at Endure 1250.
With number in hand I dipped into the excellent change and toilet facility and lubricated heavily to avoid a repeat of recent problems. My kit choice this time out was a test of a new sock combination, new bottom team up and a new single layer top. For socks I’d matched Injinji toe liners (which I’ve used to great effect on several ultras) with Ashmei low cut merino wool socks. For bottoms I was in Runderwear with my preferred short tights the Ronhill Trail Contour tights. This would be much lighter than teaming them with S-Lab Exo shorts. For top I was using a simple round neck Ronhill running shirt – short sleeved too, to make for an exciting change.
With kit sorted I ambled around the main group of congregated runners, said hello to some of the runners I knew and then bimbled up to the playground to play with ‘Rudolph’ on the swings. With playtime achieved we headed to the start line and listened to the race briefing and prepared for the off.
I looked out to the assembled crowd and realised there were probably less than 100 runners in the group but it had an air of a classic about it – well save for the lack of five inch shorts and the amount of expensive Salomon packs and GPS watches.
With limited fanfare we all threw ourselves on to the course and we set off at a nice pace. I chatted with Greg who I know a little bit through my attendance at SVN events and it was nice to catch up as I hadn’t seen him since the Ranscombe Ramble. I soon wished him good luck though and pushed on a little bit as although I wanted time on my feet we had a BBQ to attend.
Croydon is not noted for being an attractive place but it would be very fair to say that the Vanguard Way was very pleasant and wound itself around the outskirts of one of Surreys less well regarded towns before it hit woodland, forests and trail. I bounded across the route with an abandon not seen in quite some time and I was having a genuinely fun time.
The enclosed pictures better illustrate how much I was having
And then it began, I’d been following the people ahead of me rather than following my GPS and this proved a mistake as when I looked down to my shiny new Ambit 3 I realised I was significantly off route and so where many others. There was a suggestion that route signage had been the victim of tampering fingers but ultimately it didn’t matter we were lost.
I rocked up to a small group heading back towards me and a couple of others and we all stopped. I’d pretty much run 10km already and there was no sign of the first water station. Bugger. Between us we compared GPS devices, the route description and previous entrants knowledge to come up with a plan.
Huzzah! I cried as I bounced quickly downhill, taking decisions based solely on instinct (and a hint of a GPS map in the corner of my watch). Eventually with 13 kilometres on the clock I found the water station and it felt like a hard 13 kilometres, I hoped that on the return I would not get nearly so lost as who needs to add a further 3km to the route? I grabbed a cup of water, noted that my own store was still about half full (1.5 litre Salomon bladder) and so set off feeling upbeat.
It was around here that I finally checked my feet. I’d been incredibly uncomfortable around the balls of my feet and so when I peered inside my Olympus I could no longer see my outer sock layer – they had gone all Paul Daniels on me. I stripped my shoes off and found the Ashmei socks wrapped around my toes – I removed them and consigned them to the side pocket of my run vest. Well kit test one was a failure – we won’t be replicating that at the Ridgeway.
But I digress and so back to the race.
The second section was through some beautiful countryside and had the two most serious descents with lovely wild flora and fauna abound. I took the descents with all the speed and control I could muster, dipping over the gates and using the superb grip of the Altra Olympus to ensure I didn’t end up on my arse. The thought that had occurred though was that I was going to have to come back up this later in the day.
At mile 11 I was rewarded for my efforts with a meeting of ‘Mumwhoruns’ from Twitter and Instagram. We had missed each other at the Amba City of London Mile but with a message sent via Instagram I knew were she and her family were located and it was delightful to finally say hello in person. We of course grabbed a photograph because that’s what you do in this social media age – sod Justin Bieber – I want photographs with my social media followers!
I ploughed on though and the route settled down a little before a final climb up to the halfway point. the marshals sent us to the end of the road and urged us back with the offer of sweeties – but no water…
I looked on in horror as the young lady before me said ‘we’ve run out of water but Gareth is going to try and get some to us’.
Holy fuck, it was about 27 degrees and I had now almost exhausted my water supply. One of the marshals was able to spare, from her own personal supply, about 75ml of water but that wasn’t going to get me far. She decided that she would try one of the local homes but there was no telling how long this would take and I knew that the longer I stayed the more chance there was that I would not make the cut-off time. I had to take a decision and I decided that I would risk the hills and the heat with the miniscule amount of water I had and hope that the next checkpoint would have water.
The wheels started to come off immediately but I focused my head as there was little I could do about the predicament my body found itself in. I ran for a while with hundred marathon club member Maria who I hadn’t seen since the 2013 edition of the Kent Roadrunner marathon, but this liaison was short lived as I needed to peg back my exertions.
The heat of the day was at full beam and I knew the climbs would soon be on me and I was feeling light headed. I sat down on a bench at the bottom of the first of the two ascents – letting runners pass me by. I sat here for about 15 minutes trying to regain my composure and with a weary head I pounded up the first hill, stopping periodically and exhausting the last of my water. At the top I called the GingaNinja and advised her of my problem and she told me to ‘hang on in there, keep to the shade and get back as quickly as possible’. What she didn’t mention was that I was barely making any sense and I was slurring my words – the heat had clearly now gotten a solid grip.
I continued forward, making slower and slower progress – more runners passing me but I had climbed the second hill and I ambled down towards the water station, fingers crossed they had supplies.
I gulped water – probably too much but I needed to freshen up, hydrate and then be on my way. What had looked like a DNF a few minutes earlier started to look like a possible finish again. I filled my bladder up, ensuring I had enough for the last few miles and then headed out. It took a little while for the water to kick in and I added in some apple and raspberry fruit pouches (baby food) but once it did kick in I could see I was struggling for time.
I started to run again, something I had not thought possible and soon I was thundering through the trees, making up some of the massive amount of lost time I’d had in the middle. I walked quickly the uphills and I leathered the downhills – I was not going to miss the cut off.
Boom, I hit another hill, passed a couple of runners and then up and round but even following my GPS there was a degree of inaccuracy and I found myself lost again. I’d run about a kilometre in the wrong direction and with no other runners around I had little choice but to turn back.
I arrived back at the red and white tape and attempted to piece together my location – I could see two path options, neither looked familiar. Of course, you’ve probably already guessed, I took the wrong one (I was on the GPS route) but in the distance and in the more defined path, I could see taped markings and so I assaulted the undergrowth and made my way properly cross-country style. I landed on the path as I leapt free of the undergrowth – legs cut to ribbons and looked up and down the trail. In my head I heard those magic words – relentless movement forward and so I hurtled downhill with time ebbing away.
I was back – I could see things I recognised. The GingaNinja called checking on my progress and I said I was nearly there but with only 20 minutes to cut off and having already completed just under 46kilometres I wasn’t sure how far I had left. I could see runners coming in from all directions but I didn’t care I was pretty sure I was on the right route, I dipped through the park and beyond the children’s play area, families and children everywhere required avoiding and I could finally see the finish.
With all the energy I could muster I gave it everything I had left for a finish – Gareth the RD calling out words of encouragement as I crossed the line and almost sank to my knees.
I looked terrible, the GingaNinja thought I needed hospital rather than a shower and I was pretty incoherent. I had managed it but it should have gone so much better.
I’ll wear this finishers T-shirt with pride.
- Distance: Marathon(ish)
- Profile: Hilly Trail
- Date: August 2016
- Location: Croydon
- Cost: £36
- Terrain: Hard packed trail, road
- Tough Rating: 3.5/5
Route: Tremendous route and allowed to see some of the trails I never normally get to go on. The Vanguard Way is a route that will challenge and should be respected. The out and back nature should have made navigation easier but believe me it would be a mistake to think that. I would recommend getting to know the course if you can – it will really help in this instance.
Organisation: I’d love to say it can’t be faulted but the lack of water at the halfway point was a big failing – however, as I understand it they did resolve this eventually and the marshals did everything they could for us and it didn’t effect everyone.
The good news was that the start, finish line and other aid stations were excellent and well stocked. The course markings were interesting and if speculation is correct that they had been tampered with then there’s not a lot you can do about that and so it’s difficult to offer assessment on this.
However, one change I’d like too is perhaps one colour arrows for ‘out’ and one colour for ‘back’. I did at one point near the finish start on my way back to the halfway point – which would have been, mentally, a killer mistake.
Ultimately though the organisation was excellent – the change and toilet facilities were brilliant and the organisers contributed to a great summer marathon vibe.
Goodies: Neck gaiter (from Richmond Marathon), bespoke medal, t-shirt, granola and a mars bar – yep it’s one of the better goody bags for under £40! These in addition to a great route make this a bargain race.
Again: More than likely, it’s a tough marathon but there are too many positives not to give this another go. I’d prefer to know the route better and not end up running an extra 5km and I’d want to ensure I was carrying enough water with me but yes I’d sign up to this again.
Conclusion: if you’re looking for a tough, challenging and demanding summer marathon then this had your name all over it. It’s not really for the ‘one and done’ marathoners – it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles – it had just what you need and a great atmosphere. In my search for low key, high quality events this scores very highly and while the water issue might have ruined my time that is something the organisers (and I) will learn from and ensure doesn’t happen again. You really can’t go wrong if you decide to go bounding about the Vanguard Way and if they ever open up the 107km of ultra trail I’ll be keen on that too.