Monday, 22 October 2012

Race Report - Survival of the Fittest (Edinburgh) 2012

After all that nonsense back in March at The Mighty Deerstalker, I approached the Men's Health Survival of the Fittest – run by the same company of hardcore athletes and escaped mental patients - with a much greater level of suspicion, a heftier training regime and several bucketloads more fear.  I wasn’t getting caught out by half an hour of surprise scree-climbing again, nor was I planning to leap into any rivers unprepared. This time I was going to do things properly.

To my utter astonishment, it appears to have paid off.

Venture Trust’s showing at Survival was pretty weak compared to the team we fielded at the Deerstalker. Whilst more than 20 VT types were up for the mud-eating hill-climbing mountain-scrambling nonsense down in Innerleithen, a mere half-dozen volunteered to test whether or not they were among ‘the fittest’ in Edinburgh. Perhaps the lack of sewage tunnels and mudbaths put people off? Weird. But we mustered nonetheless and donned traditional green VT warpaint, basing ourselves practically on top of the finish line in Princes Street gardens, basking in the glorious October weather – bright, crisp, clear and perfect for running – and distracting ourselves by the company of good friends and an excitable Labrador puppy.

Rubbing the VT puppy for luck.
Due to the narrow, twisty-turny course and the constraints of the obstacles we would be encountering, the race sets off its 3,000 competitors in ten waves of 300 people, arbitrarily assigned so as to minimise the potential for bottlenecking (something I had been darkly warned about by Survival veterans). We had randomly chosen wave 7, starting at 11.30 am, and thus had the pleasure of watching six other waves warm up and receive a pre-race briefing before walking to the start line on The Royal Mile. A little before we crowded round for our own briefing, the race winner appeared from the western end of Princes Street Gardens. Laden with muscles but covered in bruises and scrapes, as well as being completely soaked with water, this Herculean figure nimbly leapt up and over the 8-foot high, 3-foot deep wall that separated him from the finish line and his prizes. Second place was nowhere to be seen for some minutes to come, but when he did arrive he was snarling and lurching like a man possessed. The steam rising off his body was more testament to how hard he had worked than how cold it was. We looked at each other nervously. What on earth had we let ourselves in for?

Actually, I knew most of what we had let ourselves in for, and had trained appropriately. A full (and exact) 10km of running, interspersed with nonsense including monkey bars, cargo nets, almost endless staircases and at least a small quantity of mud and water. My training had been adjusted appropriately, regularly taking in some of the nastier staircases used on the course, and incorporating the adventure/assault course recently installed in Inverleith park. So when our time came for the longer-than-you-remember walk from the event’s finish line in the gardens up to its start line in front of St Giles’ Cathedral (which had services in progress, muting the starter’s pistol to a quiet clap), I was energised, excited, ready to tackle what was coming up.

I knew that speed was of the essence in the early kilometres, and happily jostled for position as I hurdled hay bales and barrelled down steep closes. Dodging traffic was to become a theme too, since none of the roads were closed, but before long I had already overcome the first km marker and was preparing mentally for Jacob’s Ladder. But those sneaky organisers had other ideas, and had set up the first obstacle section in a vacant lot immediately before the stairs. We carried heavy cones, heaved ourselves over pyramids of scaffolding, swung on monkey bars and otherwise navigated a pair of heavily-obstructed finger loops, before eventually being released to tackle the stairs.

They’re awful, no doubt about it. I’ve practised running them at least half a dozen times, and they really don’t get much easier. I wheezed my way to the top, clutching my exploding chest with one rugby-gloved hand and propelling myself onwards with the other. Round to the summit of Calton Hill my least favourite type of people awaited us: Army PT instructors. Here we moved some sandbags around (I was pleased to help but unsure whether there was a flood warning at the top of the hill – most confusing), launched on rope swings, scrambled over more cargo nets (can anyone explain what this is preparation for? How much modern warfare involves cargo nets? Are wars being fought on container ships?) and generally spoiled a stunning view of the city, sea, Fife and the Borders with the kind of nonsense you can only get from Rat Race events. I was having a ball.

Assault course finished, I flew back down Calton Hill, looking forward to the next challenge. I had caught the back of the previous wave by now, and was picking my way through slower runners, notably a group of approximately a hundred million women dressed in hessian sacks labelled ‘Hot Potatoes’ who were trying hard to stick together. Behind the Parliament and into Holyrood park, the course posed no more obstacles for another couple of km, as the real challenge involved picking one’s way up and through a muddy, hilly section that would have suited trail shoes much better than my knackered road Asics. But the reward was worth it – a huge waterslide, set up to launch you sideways into the next part of the race along the Innocent cyclepath.

What surprised me here was the amount of uninterrupted path to run on – for at least two kilometres this could just as well have been any other road race, although imaginatively designed to take in footpaths, a very long disused railway tunnel and some interesting parts of town. I picked off a few more groups and individuals in this section, hampered only slightly by some slightly rubbish obstacles that clearly were low on the priority list, being placed at the furthest outreaches of the course around 6-7k. I would regret these observations.

Because the next few sections were very, very tough. We moved along the Cowgate for just a few hundred metres before slowly slogging up another previously-unnoticed ancient close, popping out back on the Royal Mile.  An articulated lorry with its sides open stood blocking our progress, and the challenge here was to haul ourselves off the road and into the lorry and back down over the other side. Three times. For me this was – by far – the toughest obstacle on the course, and it left me drained and aching. The merciful downhill back to the Cowgate came as some relief as I tend to recharge on the run, and I hit the Grassmarket flying, weaving in and out between groups of tourists. At the far end of the Grassmarket I barrelled into a maze constructed of the kind of silver-grey mesh fencing you see at building sites, a disorientating experience as the near- and middle-distance fences all blended into one. I had two enormous guys running right on my shoulder, looking for a spot to overtake in the impossibly tight maze, and was astonished to find that when I eventually escaped the fence-tastic labyrinth they were nowhere to be seen. They must have given up on overtaking and gambled on taking a different - much longer - route through the maze, because their mad-dash sprints only overtook me another 500 metres later. Just luck, I suppose, as they were definitely closer to the much-overused label ‘the fittest’ than me.

It was almost over. Back in Princes Street Gardens there was more very important clambering to do, before a quick hop in a huge, inflatable pool full of filthy water that bore signs of already having been trampled through by 600 muddy runners. A last few hundred metres and then my own crack at the final wall, by now too congested and covered in writhing bodies for anyone to attempt a solo leap. Just as at the Deerstalker, runners now selflessly launched one another up and over, and after paying my dues I took my turn, happily running the few yards to the finish line.

Job done.
Having estimated around two hours to complete the course, thinking that congestion and constant obstacles would be its MO, I was startled to find that I'd finished in just 64 minutes. The Crew Chief, who had planned to come and see me finish an hour later, was still at home eating her lunch. I had overtaken hundreds of people from waves ahead of mine, and secured a final position of 586th out of nearly 3,000. High fives to the rest of the VT crew - Kathryn, Sherien and Ruth (plus a couple who I didn't even set eyes on!). I am a little bruised, very sore and covered in scrapes, but utterly delighted and very eager to do it again, knowing now that I can plan for much more running and much less cardio than anticipated. This one – and by association its sister events in London, Cardiff and Nottingham – come highly recommended despite the hefty price tag. (Which, incidentally, is lower if you’re a real cool frood and do it for Venture Trust).

Coming soon on – some thoughts that may be of genuine non-narcissistic value, some exciting VLM news and more of the usual tosh. Exciting times.

Happy running


2012 to date: miles run - 369.9, miles biked - 73.2, metres swum - 3950, races - 4

Friday, 5 October 2012

Best run of the year (2012 edition)

Despite accusations by my Best Man during his speech that this blog is merely a conduit for my own self-aggrandisement (it is) among enquiries of ‘what is with all the running?’ (don’t know), I still managed to incorporate quite a lot of running into my own wedding. Which is entirely how I wanted it.

This blogpost is NOT about the wedding – one day I might write something down about what the day meant to me, but not today. No, this post is about The Third Traditional Pre-Wedding Run. I’ve already written about the first, and bypassed the second as it wasn’t my run to write about. So here goes with the third.

A glorious, crisp morning broke over St Andrews on Saturday 29th September, and with several hours still remaining before my 3pm appointment at the altar I invited guests to join me for a wee jog, leaving from the Martyr’s Monument at 10.30am.  I expected a couple of ushers, my brother/best man and maybe one or two other hardy souls to form a motley crew. I was not entirely prepared to find a group of a dozen enthusiastic runners ready for a few swift miles...

And so we took off. A bizarre cross-section of the social circles of my life cheerily jogging in a loose group, composed of my brother, some friends from University, others from school, my brother-in-law-to-be’s girlfriend, friends whose provenance is lost in the happy mists of time and probably a couple I’ve forgotten. We headed east along The Scores, running in the middle of the deserted road and taking in the sights and sounds of St Andrews. Unbeknownst to me, one of my non-running ushers had just moments before bundled my bride off the road to avoid us meeting on the morning of the wedding. Thinking she was still in her rented cottage at the corner of The Scores and North Castle Street, we sprinted past the front door and onwards, descending fast to the harbour. A small boy shouted out to me ‘be careful!’. We tried not to take it as an omen.

Rounding the medieval stone walls we joined the beach-side path, and the field spread out. At the front a couple of marathoners, a former international sprinter and a hardy triathlete, towards the back a few ground-pounders who apply less haste and more refinement to their technique. All running together, all smiling and chatting and enjoying the scenery. I couldn’t have been happier.

Reaching the end of East Sands we folded back on ourselves, taking the road into town and meeting what can only be described as a pirate en route – an older gent with an eyepatch, large beard and a stick. We tried not to take this as an omen either. I put an usher in charge of leading the pack as I dropped back to mingle with others, and he led us down a sharp left along Queen’s Terrace, a beautiful tree-lined road which transforms abruptly into the Lade Braes, a footpath which could take you on all kinds of adventures if you had the time. We didn't, and so instead headed through the western end of town, pointing out local landmarks to the out-of-towners as we headed gently towards West Sands.

We regathered the pack for a dash across Grannie Clark's Wynd - the perilous road which crosses the 1st and 18th fairways of the world famous Old Course. The faster amongst us summoned wild sprints under the pretext of minimising the risk of being taken out by low-flying golf balls, and before long the pack was spread out again, snaking along West Sands. My intentions to keep the team together were proving impossible, but no matter, it's hard to get lost on a giant empty beach... We remarked on our obligatory Chariots of Fire moment, and I smiled enormously and inwardly, watching 12 people whom I love dearly, gathered in a funny little corner of Fife, ran along the beach where I proposed to my Crew Chief. The sun peeked out from behind a tiny cloud and everything was well with the world. 

Imagine synth music...
As we reached the turnaround and slogged through a gap in the dunes, the field became irretrievably spread out as the faster runners jostled for supremacy – I chose to stick with the back marker rather than join in the ruckus at the front. By the time we got back to the Martyr’s Monument, where a receiving party of other wedding guests had assembled, we had clocked just over four miles. An impeccable start to the day.

The day got quite a lot better after that.

Happy running


2012 to date: miles run - 326, miles biked - 69.2, metres swum - 3350, races - 3