As much of a Top Gear fan that I am (the trip round Vietnam is definitely up there as one thing on TV that I’d watch again), I did not sign up to this race to run on the test track of Top Gear. In fact, I thought I had signed up for a completely different race entirely: the Cranleigh 21-miler.
The Style Ditz?
Now before you tarnish me with the ditzy brush, this was an easy-ish mistake to make. After all, the Cranleigh 21-miler was happening on the same day (16 March 2014) and Dunsford is in Cranleigh, so I wasn’t that far out. On the race instructions, they advised drivers not to use their Sat Navs to get there for this very reason. Yes, I could have actually read about the race that I had entered but at that stage in marathon training, I wasn’t all that fussed. As long as it covered an ample distance and was held under race conditions, it was good enough for me.
A #RunDay out
Once over the initial shock that it wasn’t quite what I had signed up for, the problem of logistics reared its ugly head. How on earth was I going to get to the starting point of Dunsford Aerodrome? I love racing but when you don’t have a car, travelling to any race outside the M25 becomes a bit of a nightmare. Especially from East Finchley on a Sunday.
Before discovering a ready-made running community of women on Twitter, the Blogosphere and Facebook, I had to rely on the folks for lifts to races. While I’m sure they enjoyed spending time with me on the drive to a race and back, it’s not exactly fun or fair for them. Then there’s always the option of hiring a car (costly) or not racing at all but then I’d miss out on seeing the glorious English countryside.
Thankfully, one of the bunch of runners I have got to know after the past two years Katy was driving and offered myself Hilary and Alexa a lift there. What a godsend she was. My only alternative would be to cycle to a London train station at some obscene hour, then cycle five miles from the train station near Dunsford to the Aerodrome, run 20 miles and repeat the whole process backwards. Now what kind of person would be crazy enough to do that?
Granted, I did have to cycle 20 miles that day because I now live in the very green but not so well-supported in terms of transport links on a Sunday Hampstead Garden Suburbs, but that was to Katy’s house and back and I saw it as a bit of a warm-up/warm down.
It was so much fun on the way there and back, chatting with the girls about running, relationships, jobs, our parents and more. Us running bunch have built up a supportive camaraderie online and it’s good to be able to take it “offline” too.
On your marks…
In terms of set-up, there was an area selling the usual bacon butties, teas, coffees etc and a shop with running gear. We were told when we picked up our race numbers from the registration desk to leave our stuff in the car as they had a key drop. We took a look at the course map, did the obligatory to toilet stop (for the second time in my case), dosed up on electrolytes, sugar and snacks before stripping off and heading to the start.
Get set without music
Another detail I had failed to notice when signing up for the Spitfire 20 was the clause that you would be disqualified if wearing headphones. This is standard for cross country but then you’re covering much shorter distances at a harder pace. Cross country is also strategic so you’re constantly thinking and looking for your next break in the line to get ahead. It’s true that longer races can be crowded at the start but I find that music helps me to relax into my rhythm. And since I have a tendency for positive splits, anything that helps me control my pace at the start is surely a good thing. But 20 miles in silence is something completely new to me. Crikey, this would be both a physical and mental test of endurance.
Let’s take at look at the course: two loops of the track and surrounding village. You completed the track first (around three miles) before heading out onto country roads. With a few water and fuelling stops along the way at around miles 5, 10, 15, and plenty of volunteers helping you find your way, there was no way you could get lost on this well-organised event.
For a race billed as a “flat course”, I’m not quite sure what they classified at hills. Sure, there were no mountains and you weren’t climbing to the altitude that I did on the South Downs Marathon but there were a few undulating spots (miles 7 and 17 spring to mind), which you had to brace yourself for. There was also plenty of gorgeous scenery to take your mind off that fact that you were running in silence. I was actually surprised at how people passed the time, striking up a conversation with their neighbour. Instead of drifting off into my own little world like I usually do, I spent my time listening to my fellow competitors talking about the race (those who had done it before), what races they were training for and various other running-related chatter. This helped to create a more relaxed atmosphere.
Once the first half was over and the realisation I had to do it all again made me increase my pace slightly. Perhaps a little too soon. Thankfully, I too fell into the pattern of running alongside a fellow runner, chatting with him about the course. I thank him for helping me up the killer hill the second time as it was a bit of a killer.
By the time I reached the second lap, I realised that the electrolyte tablet I’d stuffed in my short pocket had decided to make it’s way around my shorts, mixed with sweat and created a patch of stickiness on my shorts, which chafed my inner thighs. Attractive? I think not. After crossing the finish line, I picked up the piece of medal bling, a cup of water and chocolate bar, and headed for a free sports massage.
Seeing that I did have to get up at 5:30am on a Sunday morning and cycle from East Finchley to Clapham South, I think I did ok in the race overall. I’m pretty pleased with my chip time of 2:32:41 and being placed ninth out of the ladies. Admittedly, the Paris marathon and PBs are playing on my mind as the date draws ever closer but as I have learnt in the past, the times when I do best are when I’m feeling refresh and relaxed.
Would I do the Surrey Spitfire 20 again?
The goody bag may not be up to much (a medal and a chocolate bar) but the race itself was well-organised and supported by volunteers. In fact, the organisers Events to Live are the people behind the only wine tasting marathon I’ve heard of in the UK – the Bacchus Marathon. It’s definitely one on my list. They also have a fab scheme for volunteers, which is worth taking a glance at too. Back to the Surrey Spitfire 20, which is great for prepping your marathon legs without having to fight your way through running traffic.
If you enjoy undulating hills, beautiful countryside and Top Gear, then try it out next year.
Thanks to Katy and the girls for their support and the lift there.