After a gap of almost a year I did a race. I thought I'd forgotten how to do this ultra-running stuff and spent at least the week prior to the race stressing, worrying, not sleeping and not eating but it turns out I hadn't forgotten at all...
The Two Towers 50k is a new race put on by Canary Trail Events and is a 50km loop around Surrey taking in a few classics such as Leith Hill, and the Box Hill stepping stones and steps. It's over mixed terrain- there's pretty much a bit of everything to run on- some of it extremely runnable, a few bits not so much and you really had better enjoy climbing up steps!
Registration at Mickleham village hall was well organised and efficient with the volunteers checking that everyone had the mandatory kit. Unlike some races, the compulsory kit is pretty basic but you must carry a canary at all times. Being an avid knitter of small creatures and random stuff I was able to make my own and I had it attached to my pack weeks ahead of the race as I was so paranoid about forgetting or losing it!
The last of the light had almost gone when the race started and straight away you're under tree cover so headtorches were on from the beginning. You're also going uphill from the start which, if you try to take it too quick, will come back and bite you later! Having said that, I spent the first maybe half of the race going rather quicker than I'd intended. It was so long since I'd run at night that I was really worried about getting lost and I tried desperately hard to keep up with the group of guys in front. I had the gpx on my watch but somehow it hadn't loaded so after about 1.5 miles I had to stop and restart my watch. That really rattled me and I think I allowed it to take too much mental energy. The route was marked, but as I ran along it was apparent that people had taken down signs and there were a few places where it really wasn't clear which turning to take. Having a gpx isn't quite as straightforward as all that- often it can be a bit behind where you actually are and tree cover can also make the signal somewhat approximate- but it definitely helped and a couple of times it saved me and others from heading in the wrong direction.
It's hard to recall details of the route- pretty much everything was unfamiliar to me- but although there was a decent bit of up and some gnarly bits, plenty was quite runnable. Allan, the RD, has a knack of making routes that mess with your head and I found a few stretches where I just lost all sense of direction and a twisting, turning trail seemingly going on for ever without actually getting me anywhere! The climb to Leith Hill was not fun if you're familiar with the area because apparently we were very close to the tower at the top but instead of taking the usual trail, the route sends you down a gully before you then get to climb back up. That didn't bother me really as I had no idea where I was in relation to anywhere, but it did seem to upset a few other runners!
A lot of the race was a low point. Because I'd gone off too quick my heart rate was higher than it should have been which meant fairly soon I was feeling sick and struggling to eat. The checkpoints were great and the volunteers working at them were equally great, but other than one piece of water melon and a few crisps I don't think I took anything from any of them. Maybe a bit of Coke at one. Perhaps if there'd been more savoury snacks on offer I might have managed to eat a little more but, despite coaxing from the volunteers, I just couldn't face eating. Nutrition is clearly something I still need to work on and it's certainly not the fault of the checkpoints that I didn't fuel properly.
** An aside to any perimenopausal runners reading this- I'm finding that I feel I need to wee more on long runs but often don't manage to, and also feeling quite uncomfortable like I'm about to get a urine infection. And I spent a fair bit of the race feeling like this. I think that's a hormonal thing and although I've been on HRT for a while now it definitely makes a race more difficult. Partly because of the feeling uncomfortable but also the worrying about trying to find a place to have a wee takes up energy. I've no idea what the solution is (although I should probably drink way more than I do) but just thought I'd mention it. **
The best part was the last 4ish miles as I was on familiar trails then. The mist that had appeared from time to time throughout the race didn't bother me at this point as at least now I knew where I was going. Earlier on there were some thick patches of mist and fog making it hard to see the trail and spot the markers and turnings. I'm not super-excited about the Box Hill stepping stones as every time I cross them I'm scared of falling in, but it was such a relief to reach them this time. However I nearly did fall in when I saw someone filming us crossing the stones!
After the stepping stones it was the famous Box Hill steps (which have recently been repaired). It's still a long way to the very top but the steps are now in much better condition so the climb to the view point is relatively smooth and easy. Even though it was dark, I did briefly stop and look out from the trig point but I could smell the barn and just wanted to get the race done. It felt like forever running along the Happy Valley trail to the second tower; it's always a bit further than I remember and in the dark it felt like miles. After that it's some downhill, some steps down and then the sting in the tail- Satan's Staircase. It sounds like bragging, but I quite like Satan's. Yes it's tough, especially coming at the end when your legs are tired, but it's so close the finish that for me it only has positive associations and that really helps me through this section. Legs and lungs still burn a bit at the top but as long as you safely negotiate the Goodnight Sweetheart descent then it's all done and dusted.
Goodnight Sweetheart is a bit of a nasty descent especially if you're rubbish at downhill like me, as it's rooty, steeper than it appears, and can be quite slippery. But I've run it enough times now so I know where the worst bits are (mind the barbed wire at ground level on the left) and just descend gingerly then run like heck to the finish. Oh, and don't forget the stile about 1/4 mile from the end!
I crossed the finish line back at Mickleham around 3am with nothing left. Allan was waiting at the finish and I greeted him with the words "You! You're a very bad man!". I went into the hall and had the biggest hug from the Volunteer Coordinator, Mike (who did a fantastic job of organising everyone and finding last minute help). He'd been worried about me the whole race because my tracker hadn't worked so there'd been no record of me passing any of the timing points or going through the check points. Mike pretty much had to carry me to a chair because as soon as I stopped running I felt so sick and dizzy and my legs went to jelly. A volunteer brought tea and then Allan gave me my medal.
It was at that point I discovered I was 3rd lady (and fastest old lady!). No trophy or anything for 3rd place but I was fine with that. I hadn't had a good race, I'd been pretty miserable for large parts of it, but it was the race I needed to have.
There's a brilliant video of the race on the Canary Trail Events Facebook page so do take a look. And do read about the incredible Eros and his guide Sarah who completed the race. If that doesn't inspire you I've no idea what will! For any women reading this who are nervous about night running or ultra running check out this page on the CTE website.
Trying to sum up the race to friends I wrote:
"Super fun race. You need to enter, and it's loads cheaper than many other ultras out there. Plus there's steps. And stepping stones. And some up. And towers. And a load of owls."
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles I go before I sleep.