Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Red Bull Steeplechase

I was flying, flat out down Win hill. My legs were burning, but it felt great, feet dancing over the rocks until my left foot caught the top of a boulder.  I tried to correct myself, but my momentum was rotating downwards, looking ahead all I could see was a bed of jagged rocks; this was going to hurt. I slid along the trail, my bottle splitting and peeling my left palm, my right hand side acting as a grating brake.  As I lay on my side the position put my entire body into a cramp and I wiggled around like an electrocuted fish, winded and struggling for breath. I shouted at the passing runners to leave me, I didn't think anything was broken, before regrouping for some time and hesitantly clambering to my feet.  My right forearm resembled Popeyes, a mesh of blood and grit, but my legs seemed ok.  I wiped the blood dripping from my left hand onto my face - might as well look proper bad ass. Only another two miles until the next cut off and another eight until the final one.  Bugger!

Some of the damage

Three weeks prior I'd won a place on the Red Bull steeplechase through runners world, a 21 mile race with 1400 metres of ascent.  The twist was that roughly every 5 miles they cut the back third of the field until only 30 runners remained. Having spent the summer pickling what remained of a runner post Sierra Leone, I suddenly had only three to get marathon fit. The next day, when in theory I should be beginning my taper, I headed to London's steepest hill, swains lane and attempted to run up and down it ten times.

Three weeks later I was travelling up to the peak district in a car with Jon 'best assault course racer in Britain' Albon, Ross 'GB duathlete' Macdonald and Rob 'best trail runner in Heathside' O'Grady. If fully fit I could just about match them once we got up to marathon distances, but today I had no chance, in fact of the 6 people I knew racing 5 of them were probably going to beat me; top 30 was going to be tough.

We arrived in Glossop and it was a bit disconcerting how fit everyone looked. I'd opted for my running of the bulls outfit, as a homage to red bull, but was looking completely out of place and with the temperature picking up, it was definitely going to be too hot. 500 of us collected under the Red Bull banner and after a 100 meter sprint we turned straight up the steepest hill I've ever attempted to run up - 49% gradient. The route was single track and panic set in amongst the runners trying to get clear of the maul. People were scrambling through the bracken, elbows swung to make room, it was a full on mosh. The first hill only took 8 minutes, but by half way my calves were already burning, the steepness forcing me to climb on the tips of my toes, putting all of the force through my calves and using the bracken to keep my balance. By the top of the hill I was already way off the top 30 and my calves were shredded. Trying to get a rhythm was proving difficult, but as we reached the first peak, a solo trumpeter was playing the Rocky theme tune, amazing.
This doesn't do the first hill justice

Two miles in and we finally reached our first downhill, my time to shine. The hill was grassy and wet so I lent in and took off full pelt. To my surprise, I was overtaken by a nutter who was sprinting to build up enough speed to then slide down on his side. I considered copying his technique, but as much as I believe the adverts, I couldn't see Ariel getting the stains out of my white outfit and after three slides he'd changed tack, having grazed his entire left side. 800 feet of descent later, I'd overtaken 25 or so and mid way up the next peak we ran through our first counter - 59th. I maintained my position on the up, passed the table overflowing with Red Bull cans and then got stuck in a two mile single track route. I was trying to pass runners, but the ground was too technical; overtaking meant risking tripping, as you didn't have enough space to see the trail coming ahead, add to that a barb wire fence and I decided to just tuck in. There were streams, rocks and suddenly a huge candy floss ball, which turned out to be a rotting sheep clouded in mold.

An ascent, I'm in white

Another descent through the woods and past a beautiful reservoir and we entered the first cut off point, with another wealth of Red Bull and large group of supporters. My outfit was cheered, which gave me a boost, but for 8 miles in I was feeling pretty tired and knowing I would be well within the top 125 at the next cut off point, I started to focus on the 12 miles to pull myself up from 57th to 30th, seemed unlikely.

Monster 1000ft ascent in one

Our next stage featured 1000ft of ascent! Runners were slowing dramatically and rather than picking up the odd runner, I could start to see the groups of people ahead of me. As I was passing people, others were coming through, but by the top I'd improved to 50th and suddenly felt that 30th was more than achievable, I wasn't fit, but fairing better than most, but then came the crash.

My immediate thought was that I could do an Eric Liddel - despite the fall sprint on and win the whole thing, but a few more steps and even though my legs still seemed to work, it was apparent I wasn't the runner of five minutes before. With only 2 miles to the next check point, I ran on, hitting another steep ascent, where runners were cautiously stepping their way down. 'Straight back on the bike' I thought and steaming off again. I couldn't tell if their looks were saying to me 'fair play' or 'that's what got you injured in the first place.' The right hand side of my body was all slightly strained and letting my arm go limp seemed to help, another mile passed before a welcome face gave me some support, as Anthony, a fellow Heathsider sped past. He was sitting pretty in 23rd before taking a 2 mile detour and looked like a man on a mission to catch up immediately.

I reached the second cut off point in around 60th and decided a Red Bull was definitely needed, however a few more yards on, I stopped, looked back and thought about stopping. There was no way I was going to overtake 30 people in the next 6 miles and it was likely every hill I was going to have to be a walk. It seemed sensible, but then I thought about the ribbing I'd get in the car all the way back to London and realised I had to continue.

Amazing scenary

The atmosphere of the race suddenly changed. Surrounding runners knew we weren't going to make the cut, so we were all now just running to finish and our competitive edge drained away, each runner chatting with each other and encouraging anyone passing them. I was amazed how many ultra runners there were and that they were also struggling - they could do the miles, but the speed which we had covered the first 12 miles had ragged even their legs. We took in the breathtaking scenery, swapped war stories and slothed our way through the last six miles. With a mile left to go, I decided I had to finish with a flurry so, took off down the hill and gritted my teeth for running what felt like a decent pace, but was probably wasn't even 7 minute miling. I turned the corner to see the third cut off, thank God, I was destroyed. We were greated with hoodies, socks, and for some reason a teatowel (which I love) and of course plenty of Red Bull. We jumped on their buses and made our way back to the finish, where there was a free BBQ and bar. Jon had felt great at half way and incredibly streaked away to go from 8th to 2nd, resulting in a magnum of champagne he generously shared; my pain was quickly numbed.

Heathside Massive L-R Brian, Rob, Myself, Anthony

It was one hell or a race - well organised, with amazing scenery and ridiculously cheap for what you get, but wow is it brutal; four days on I still can't walk properly. If you want to get close to the feeling, ask your biggest friend to repeatedly beat your quads with a rusty crow bar, while someone grates your calves for three hours. I wasn't match fit going in, but realistically I'd need to be fully marathon fit for next year, to do it justice, as this is harder than a marathon. You can train on hills in preparation, but they're not going to be enough. I will be back next year, with my sights firmly on a top ten finish, I just need to get the keys to the Shard first, as it's the only thing within 200 miles of London high and steep enough to prepare me.

L-R me, Ross, Rob and Jon - final pint in London

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  1. Aweeeeeeeeesome recap of the event! I too ran it and although ended less visibibly bruised and battered than you I can sure feel it in my legs. I'm still walking a bit funny today, but can now step off a sidewalk without a 3 minute warmup.


    1. Thanks Laura, knew it was going to be hard, but bloody hell. How far did you get? said I'd pace a friend for the beachy head marathon, only just found out how killer that's going to be

  2. Don't be scared Dave, Beachy Head is only 3 out of 5 on the CTS series scale :D, although it was blowing a serious gale there last year it's not overly hilly or technical.

    Great report by the way

    1. Thanks Adrian, Beachy was great, really nice atmosphere and amazing scenery. Definitely wouldn't have wanted to do it in the rain though, windy and cold enough without that misery.