Over the past few years the Serpentine has perhaps become the biggest Ultra Running club in the UK. There must be more than 50 Serpies who have run ultras in the past 12 months and often you'll find them at the sharp end of races. It's great to see this and the numbers are increasing year on year. However if you were to witness the epic failure of a year ago, where about 20 Serpies set out to complete the 50k of Kent countryside and most of them did so in a taxi you'd be forgiven for thinking that we were out of our depth.
I love Gatliff. It was my first "ultra" though these things don't feel like ultras. This would be my fifth time here. So far my record is;
2007 - Quite nice weather - 5.37
2008 - Bad Weather - 6.46
2010 looked like it was going to be different though. It had not rained for a week and the UK is going through an unusually cold snap for November, with temperatures hovering around freezing. The ground was rock solid and we were going to have none of the sliding about and sinking that we normally have to suffer here. It was disappointing that not many Serpies came to finish what they started last year, which is a shame cos after half way the food gets good.
I started the run with Drew Sheffield, Mark Bell and Phillip Smith who I knew from various ultras and GUCRs. Before I even arrived I saw Mark Braley running out from the start, 50 meters in he looked stressed already and said "Yeah I started early just to get this over with". The first few miles were exactly the same as last year (the route changes every year) except that everything was not covered with a layer of mud or water. What was a stream last year was a lovely path now, what was a lake was now a nice grassy field and what was a dead tree was still a dead tree. The route description says "head towards the dead tree". They all look dead now.
We jogged pretty slowly, some of the frozen ploughed ground was quite hard work and we were being careful not to break our feet on a frozen shit. There was a lot of it about. There was plenty of time to catch up with the others about plans for next year. How much they were going to smash the canal run and whether they were doing the Spartathlon next year. Phil mentioned the problems getting a doctors note to run Sparta. "You have not been to the doctors for 5 years. How can we possibly say you are fit and healthy??"
Around halfway the sun broke through the clouds and we actually started to feel quite warm. So long as we were moving it was fine despite the freezing temperature and the temptation to dress up like the Michellin man. The 30k checkpoint is also described as "lunch". I think all runs should have a lunch in them. Very civilised. We sat down indoors for about 10 minutes as I enjoyed some tomato soup and 3 sausage rolls dunked in. I bumped into Helen (don't know her second name) who was taking it easy after spending all summer winning things.
It was the first time I think I can remember where you could admire the views here. I have no idea where exactly we were but there were some spectacular sights, particularly when we ran down into a valley on bracken and then back up the other side. Normally the muds and rain would mask all that is good here. Not today, we were in perfect daylight.
If you have never done an LDWA (or similar) event before they are great. You get given a piece of paper with directions to take rather like a treasure hunt only the treasure is food at checkpoints. You'll get instructions like "TAKE EXTREME CARE Xing RD" and "X ST (wobbly)". The organisers of Gatliff thought of text speak before mobile phones were even invented. This is the future of running, wombling around fields in the middle of nowhere trying to determine whether a clearing in a wooded area consitutes a "Left fork" or is just random. We only took one wrong turning when we walked while Drew did a Benedict XVI in the bushes. For some reason we just stopped reading the instructions and walked on waiting for him to catch up. We then missed a very blatant left turn next to an even more blatant "large pine tree".
You have to take some of the distances quoted with a pinch of salt. Sometimes they will be very specific (run 72m then bear left), other times it would say "Run 1k". That 1k can be anywhere between 500m and 3 miles. I recall some of the parts that I had got lost in over the years. I remembered the 1k that was 3k and the 3k that was 1k and the instruction to "cross diagonally across field", which seems fine except that this field has 27 corners and I have gone wrong every time here in the past.
We really were living by paragraphs though and that is the joy of the event. Saying we have 15 miles left does not really mean a lot, but saying we have 12 paragraphs left makes much more sense. Counting down the words we headed to the end, getting excited as we approached the last few words of each para. Unless of course those last few words said "run down this road 10 miles".
Not much else to say about this that I have not said in the 4 previous times. The photos came out great. I was disappointed that so many were put off returning here because they thought it was grim, it really was beautiful in the light and we managed to finish just before dark in about 6.30.