Life pressures and business travel to Italy meant virtually no running in the three weeks between Hardmoors 60 and this, save for a couple of 5ks at my local hilly Woodbank Parkrun in the two intervening weekends. Curiously they yielded my two fastest times on that course, the second of which was a PB of 22:47 – well chuffed with that. So I rolled up pre-dawn to the Dearne Valley College on the outskirts of Rotherham knowing that either I’d be well rested and romp home to an easy PB, or I’d be under-trained and have to beast myself mercilessly to a mediocre finish. Those of you with your finger on the pulse probably already know the answer.
The black sky was clear and star-filled and the air was surprisingly mild as we watched the early 6am starters get sent on their way. There would be no frost on the first footbridge this year. Afterwards there was an hour to kill at the runners’ registration in the overheated sports hall. It soon passed as I chatted with so many acquaintances. This event lived up to its reputation once again as being a great running family reunion, probably helped by the fact that it’s the last race in the Runfurther series and quite a few runners were seizing their last chance to bag some points. For me it was just another day in my 'weekend job'. I like my weekend job. It’s my preferred occupation. ;-)
It was good to see Dawn Westrum and Garry Scott for the first time in a long time, within a minute of my arrival. I didn’t know who to greet first. Needless to say Garry waited his turn patiently. ;-) A rarer reunion was with Dark Peak Fell Runner Rachel Findlay-Robinson, last seen in the environs of the Brownlee Olympic Gold Run in August. Another rarity this year was Cat Lawson, on her way back from injury. Good to see you back, Cat.
Before we knew it we were called outside into the mild early dawn to listen to the warnings of mud before being sent on our way at 7am along the roadside footpaths, now illuminated by LEDs. (!) The mist hung low over the first lake as usual. Once again I thought that I should take some pictures but I never do so soon when we are all fresh and ‘putting our foot down’.
Garry caught me up a couple of miles in and commented about me ‘going out with a bang’. Well Garry, it never feels like it at the time but hindsight proves it always to be true. That’s why I never caught you again. I never caught all the others who were overtaking me either. It's just the way it is. I've grown used to it over the past 1.5 decades.
At Elsecar Heritage Centre I spy billowing steam from a steamed-up locomotive for the first time in all the years I’ve run Round Rotherham and Elsecar Skelter. Someone would be in for a treat today. I get my camera out for the first picture on the run. The lens is steamed up from the combination of the cool morning air and my overworked, perspiring torso.
The next muddy climb up to the woods gave us our first taste of the muddiest conditions since the event was brought forward in 2009 to October. They were more akin to the December conditions we’d become accustomed to. However I didn’t care because we were in for a mild, calm, sunny day – the 4th year in a row of perfect weather.
Like last year, the sun made its first appearance over the horizon after Wentworth as we descended the track with Keppel's Column beckoning on the skyline. It wasn’t long before we were climbing the hill towards that bulbous monolith, steeling ourselves to put on our best face for the first batch of Armada Photography photographers. After that was the quick run down the road, across and down to Checkpoint 1 at Grange Park. The sun still hadn’t quite reached the checkpoint.
The little people in the woods have always captured my attention. This year (finally) I allowed myself enough time to photograph every one. It's a shame that local ne'er-do-wells have decided to modify them with blue spray paint. Still, it'll fade in time, as will they.
On the approach to Tinsley, after the diversion (hopefully the last year of this) and before the railway footbridge, the compacted soil/mud single file footpath had been washed away underneath an industrial fence that can best be described as a series of vertical metal shards with serrated edges designed to lacerate flesh. I joined the queue inching our way past the hazard, using the fence for essential support. I heard afterwards that many people cut their hands on it, at least one requiring stitches at the hospital.
We had two ladies from Sweden taking part this year (Maria Jansson and Sandra Lundqvist). Around this point (just before Tinsley) their conversation was drawing my attention because I am not used to hearing spoken Swedish. They ran effortlessly ahead and out of sight to finish over 1 hour 20 minutes ahead of me. There's an impressive example of not slowing down.
In Tinsley on the climb towards the trading estate, with not even 15 miles done and feeling the effects of my earlier exuberance I was forced to take my first walking break. I struck up a conversation with a 6am starter I'd just caught up with as I waited for my body to recover a little from the incessant running up to that point. It always happens here when fitness is lacking. In a good year (2011 and 2009) it doesn't occur until Rother Valley Country Park, where I think it hits most people.
Dick Scroop (amazing MV60) caught me up in the Tinsley Trading Estate. We always enjoy a good tussle on the Ultras, using each other as carrot-and-stick to push ourselves. (It took me almost to the end of the High Peak 40 in September to catch him!) The horses watched intently as the line of runners ran through their field to the road and I got overtaken by Tom Keely.
Checkpoint 2 at Treeton was as sunlit and colourful as ever. I had my first kneel-down here to squeeze the seizure products from my leg muscles. It works for a while. This is the view from that rejuvenating position just in front of the waste bins.
The next stage (don't miss the right turn between the boulders at the top of the hill) brought us eventually to Rother Valley Country Park. I was definitely in survival mode now and waiting for my second wind, which I knew would come. Its strength would depend on my level of fitness. Jo Miles and Alison Brind (more regular carrot-and-stick subjects of mine) had just disappeared into the distance. I had yet to pass through the 20 mile point. I think it was around this point that I caught up with LDWA stalwart Garry Burdin. Now 70 years old he's still as strong as an ox. He walked the full 50 miles in 12:35. Now that’s impressive.
After Rother Valley Country Park I was catching up with a runner who was walking at that moment. I saw him reach down to his right upper leg and I suspected something was wrong. I called him back at the road crossing (he had overshot the left turn up the track and was heading up the road to Norwood) and asked how it was going. ‘ITB injury’ came the answer from Michael Richardson. I offered a low strength (200mg) Ibuprofen to reduce inflammation. Tendons respond well to that. A man of principle, he declined my attempt to lead him astray with drugs. As we chatted it transpired that we both knew another runner from his part of the world. We jogged on together to Checkpoint 3 at Harthill (25 miles), where his family was waiting to support.
As we left CP3 I heard my name called. Dawn was just arriving. She was going well! Michael left his family to join me for the next stage across many finely ploughed fields and past the airfield where the calm, sunny conditions allowed plenty of flying and our best air display yet. A biplane was one of the aircraft doing circuits, while a speedier monoplane was doing high speed low level passes. At some point thereabouts I think I must have gone ahead of Michael.
At Turnerwood before the first level crossing, the householder was out once again with her table of refreshments – much appreciated; thank you, whoever you are. At the climb up to the track crossing I heard a train horn. This would be the first time ever I would have to wait for a train to pass. The delay was minimal before I was able to climb up onto the ballast and cross to the other side.
She beat the train....
....but I didn't.
I made my only navigational error a little later at the golf course where, following my nose I continued ahead on the old route instead of turning right to take the permissive path through the tunnel. A quick backtrack got me and a few others back on route to only lose a minute or two.
I always look forward to checkpoint 4 at Woodsetts (30 miles) because it’s over halfway and I can begin to imagine the finish and let it pull me ever more strongly. It’s also where our drop bags are – cue a major Coke refill. Tea, soup and bread were also enjoyed here. Dawn had caught up with me again by the time I left to hit more multiple field crossings. I caught up with David Cremins, Mark Dalton and Kevin Day as we approached the next small industrial estate. They were taking it easy because they had a 30-mile event in Langdale planned for the next day. I learned from them that, unfortunately Jon Steele had to retire earlier due to his knees rebelling against the onslaught of ultra marathons he’s doing this year. He would also be doing Langdale next day and was saving himself for that. (See, I’m not the only crazy Ultra junkie around here. There are crazier people out there.)
The woods seemed to be going on for ever and I was in shuffling survival mode once again as I tried to keep up with David, Kevin and Mark. Checkpoint 5 at Firbeck finally arrived, where more refuelling was enjoyed in that somewhat over-specified though undeniably smart new village hall – 35 miles done, 15 to go. I wasted minimal time before setting out on the long zigzag section across wide expanses of open fields. Just get your head down and grind out the miles, next mental target Roche Abbey.
My memory is hazy; I can’t be sure but it was around here (or possibly just before Firbeck) that I felt a tap on my back as Michael caught up with me. He had finally succumbed and asked his family for an Ibuprofen at one of the checkpoints. His pain had now vanished and he was transformed, back running strongly again. He was soon out of sight. David and Mark also overtook me and slowly pulled away into the distance to leave me alone once again.
Towards the end of the zigzags I spotted someone ahead who was walking. We runners learn to recognise far-off profiles, and I was recognising Cat. I soon caught up. She was in a world of discomfort I know only too well – i.e. body seizing up from lower back downwards. She blamed lack of training due to her injury. After checking that she was fuelling and hydrating properly, the only thing left was to try to lead her astray as well. She was more desperate and her resolve was weak. Willing to try anything to ease the discomfort and help her to finish, she gratefully accepted my 200mg offering. We shuffled on together towards Roche Abbey (more photographers) and beyond into the woods, where she paused to tap out a message on her Star Trek communicator and I jogged on towards Maltby with Kevin chasing me down once again.
Head for the church.
Since 2011, checkpoint 6 at Maltby has arrived a little sooner now that it's in the village hall just after we have gone through the graveyard. We have just under 10 miles to do at this point. In a good year I enjoy chasing other runners down and overtaking from here to the finish, but not this year. I did a bit of overtaking (e.g. David and Mark for the umpteenth time) but I was still getting overtaken as well, or playing cat-and-mouse with others as we swapped places. I had been swapping to and fro with Mick Cochrane for quite some time and he was now my carrot-and-stick subject – my 'competitor' in our little part of the race to help me to push that little bit harder.
Checkpoint 7 at Old Denaby (47+ miles) is always a long time coming. It was a very long time coming this year. The muddy flood in the gateway just before the checkpoint had been covered by sheets of plywood, which were now half submerged. I've never seen it so wet. My personal Coke and food supplies were still healthy so it was a quick hello-and-goodbye for me as I headed out to that left turn down Ferry Boat Lane to the second of our two railway crossings – another train horn and another minor wait. What a coincidence. I’ve never had to stop for a train before and now it happens at both crossings.
For the final 2-3 miles I imagined a lonely run once again, picking off and overtaking other runners and feeling like the hunted. Not so this year. There were more runners about and we were going at around the same speed, give or take the usual to-ing and fro-ing. I had just left Mick behind at the checkpoint but I knew he wasn't far behind.
I was delighted to see that the putrid green floating mat on that dead-end stretch of canal in Swinton was no more. All the litter had gone, the banks were tidied up and swans paddled lazily on the clear water. At the same point my attention was drawn below and to the right by the grunt of multiple engines and the squeals of little tyres on shiny floor. Go-karts were racing around inside an industrial unit while a few spectators looked in through the open doorways.
I heard the voices of other runners closing from behind. On the climb up to the final road crossing, David and Mark overtook me for the final time. Such was their closing speed I joked that I thought they were relay runners. I sensed someone else not too far behind so gave it all I had to avoid another lost place, running the final section up through the rough scrub-land and out onto the path back to the college (ahem – now lit by LEDs).
I followed the tape across the grass and hit the downhill ramp with tunnel vision. It was now too late for the finish line photographers. People cheered from the side but I was barely able to muster an acknowledgement. I wasn’t even wasting effort on an unnecessary thought that might deflect me from that single goal of getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. I collapsed to the ground underneath the gazebo to begin immediate recovery while counting my lucky stars that we didn’t have to continue running round to the back of the hall to the finishing desk like in previous years. Mick came steaming in 16 seconds after me. He really was breathing down my neck.
Cat ‘enjoyed’ (she might argue with that word choice) an impressive comeback, finishing only 5 minutes after me. She maintained she would never have done it without the Ibuprofen. I hope your recovery continues, Cat. It won’t be long before you’re hours ahead of me again.
Another beneficiary of the big 'I', Michael had romped home in 9:43:05, having made up over 24 minutes on me after that pat on the back as he passed. The anti-inflammatory properties of even one low-dose Ibuprofen are truly impressive when the reduction in discomfort is so marked. In my experience, complaining muscles and tendons seem to respond well and you don’t (should not) have to pill-pop to get worthwhile relief.
Michael and his heavy shoes.
My finishing time of 10:07:30 (compared with 9:14:20 in 2010) was all I deserved with the absence of training in the lead-up. Nevertheless it was still a fantastic day. Many thanks once again to the organisers for delighting us with the slick, friendly organisation of this most memorable race. You can rest assured that, as long as I am able I will be back next year for an 8th completion. It will be my first as a V50.
Here are the photos I took.
Well that’s it then, the Runfurther Grand Slam done and dusted, with more events and more parts of the country added to my memory banks thanks to Runfurther. I may not have finished with a final flourish like I did last year but it’s still a Grand Slam. Well done to the other Slammer Mick Plummer. You understand the addiction don’t you, Mick?
RFGS3 glow of success (thanks to Garry Scott for taking the piccie).