‘Forest flat’

Posted on: 06 Aug 2018

I discovered something new yesterday – that trail runners have a language all of their own. 

Us road-plodding folk would take an event description of ‘flat, safe and family friendly’ as meaning minimal elevation, modest hills, predominantly level.  Stands to reason, right?

But in trail talk, apparently there’s flat and then there’s ‘forest flat’!  And by forest running standards, we’ve since been told that the course we faced for Sunday’s Forest of Dean trail marathon was pretty tame.  By my standards, it was brutal. 

Around 1,200 metres of elevation over four laps is tough enough in itself.  In 28 degree heat, it proved one challenge too far, for this runner at least. 

I did manage to finish.  It’s the closest I have ever come to a DNF, but I made it home eventually in six long hours.

Things started well enough.  The temperature had already made me reassess my goal for the day – cracking four hours would have to wait.  Instead I focused on 4hr15 as a target, needing to average around 9:40 minute miles. 

The field was relatively small, certainly less than 1,000, with options for 10k (1 lap), half marathon (2 laps) and the full 26.2.  So I kept well back and just went with the flow, waiting for things to thin out before properly getting into my stride.

I’d seen the elevation map for the course, but I for one couldn’t really visualise the route from it, or get an accurate sense of the scale of the climbs involved.  Each 10k lap was basically split into three sections – a mainly downhill stretch to a lake called Mallards Pike, then a continuous two mile climb back the other way.

The third section was mixed (up and down) and weaved its way back to the grounds of the Speech House Hotel where the start and finish was.  A quick circuit on grass and you were back out on the trails again for a new lap. 

It surprised me – at the time, I get it now – that so many people were walking the first hill after only three miles of running.  I eased off, but still kept my splits in the 9s.  Same again for lap two, only this time I pushed a bit harder on the downhill stretches so I could afford to back off more for the hills.

The approach worked.  I got to half marathon distance in 2hr05 and stopped at the aid station to make use of the sponge buckets and take on food and water.  A brief walk while I ate and drank, then back on it for lap three.

This was where the wheels came off.  Perhaps it was the heat, maybe the terrain – probably both.  I didn’t have the energy to run the hill this time and it was run/walk from then on.  By the time I completed lap three, around the 3hr30 mark, I knew I’d crashed.  A full on slam into that proverbial wall that has reared its ugly head to some degree in all six of the marathons I’ve done.

I got to that same aid station and tried to eat a piece of energy bar, but it wouldn’t go down.  Quite the opposite – my stomach turned and you can probably work out the rest for yourselves.

The marshals were terrific.  One stayed with me and talked me through his own experiences competing in triathlons and how it is possible to get back from such a low point.  I’ve been here before too and I vowed I wouldn’t put myself in that position ever again.  There were tears, cursing, more sickness and more doubt.

To my right was the start / finish line – 20 yards to look at, but in reality 6.2 miles away.  To my left, the car park and an obvious escape route.  Which do you choose?  The thought of that final lap, hills and all, genuinely terrified me, but something told me to try. 

A good half hour had passed by now and the marshal offered to walk with me around the grounds and out to the start of the trail.  I asked his name and rather casually he said: “Andy, I’m the race director, this is my event.”

For a moment I didn’t know whether to thank him or thump him!  It was the former, of course, and we said our farewells.  I broke into a very steady jog for the downhill stretch to the lake, chatting to a few fellow back-of-packers on the way who were also finding the going extraordinarily difficult.

There was a marshalling point at the lake and by now I was walking again.  Water wasn’t helping any more; I desperately needed to get some sugar on board but couldn’t handle solids.  The team there were so kind and helpful and offered to get me a drink from a nearby café.  Full fat Coke to go please! 

At this late stage I was among the final few runners still on the course.  Quite a few, we were told, had either switched to the half or dropped out.  Their cut off was 4pm and the organisers – politely I hasten to add – told me there were tracking me and would need to pull me if this little (not diet) Coke break didn’t work.  

Yet work it did, once flat it made a massive difference.  I walked the first hill for safety’s sake, but at 23 miles – the good old ‘only a parkrun to go’ point – I started running again.  Mile 25 made me smile when it beeped out at 9:34 as this was, somewhat unbelievably, back on target pace.

There was a bit more run/walk for the start of the final mile, where the last of the nasty climbs was, and then I kicked for home.  I probably overtook a dozen or so runners in that final 5k.  Some small comfort from a difficult day, but it helped lift my spirits a bit.

As did the applause from the few remaining spectators at the finish line, not least from race director Andy who duly presented me with my medal.   

So where on earth do I go from here? 

There are positives – knowing how deep I can dig if I have to.  Knowing I need to respect hills with Snowdonia coming up later this year.  Knowing I need to start drinking more than water and making sure I have something sugary available when needed that I can stomach.

On the flipside, I have to seriously question now if the marathon is right for me.  There’s no shame if it isn’t and I’ve got six medals to prove I’ve given the distance my all. 

Snowdonia is a must; I won’t change my mind about that.  Brighton is also booked for spring 2019 and that may prove my last hurrah.  It certainly feels that way right now. 

Perhaps it’s too soon to make that decision – the emotions too raw and the sense of disappointment still lingering.  I am disappointed, there’s no hiding it.  People have been so kind and supportive, praising me for ‘getting it done’, and I appreciate every word. 

Equally though, that’s not why I sign up to these things.  I’m not competitive with other people, but I am with myself and I want to keep improving.  That doesn’t necessarily mean finishing time alone, but just to look back on a race and know I ran it well.  Collapsing at 20 miles and making yourself ill might be brave and gutsy, but it isn’t running well. 

Time to take a step back and decide how much the marathon really means to me. 

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