Monday, April 15, 2013

Rollicking on the riverbank

Trying to work out if there's a quicker way to the finish line
Given the lengths I usually take to avoid any contact with mud, I still can't believe I spent nearly two hours yesterday wading and splashing through reams of the stuff. 

My second ever cross-country race was ever-so-slightly more ambitious than the three-miler I completed around Cefn Wood a few weeks ago - three times more ambitious actually (yesterday's race was a nine-miler). There was also considerably more mud to contend with in Bristol thanks to a fatal combination of wet weather and lots of bridle paths. A more cynical person might harbour suspicions that Thornbury Running Club organisers had taken great pleasure in devising the muddiest, most slithery route possible.  

The Riverbank Rollick takes place mainly on trails and across fields (90% is off-road). The route starts at the Pithay near St Mary's Church, in Thornbury, goes out to St Arilda's Church at Oldbury and then back through the village of Littleton and over Thornbury Golf Course. There is 120 metres of climbing and the titular riverbank is the Severn

So how did this grandmother of two, a confirmed short-distance road runner who doesn't own a decent pair of trail shoes, end up competing in a mud-bath of a race alongside two hundred super-fit mudo-philes?

Ruth is feeling energetic before her first XC race
Well, the blame lies firmly at the feet of fellow Lliswerry Runners, Claire and Zara, who, fresh from their success in the considerably tougher 20k Bog and Bryn around Henllys last November, persuaded me that cross-country racing is actually really good fun. 

Harri, an experienced cross-country runner, had been disappointed to miss the Bog and Bryn, so he agreed to join me in the Riverside Rollick (on the proviso that we ran separately!).

The race was originally planned for January 19, however persistent snowy conditions in the weeks before resulted in some uncertainty over whether it would go ahead.

The day before, Newport parkrun was cancelled for the first time in its two-year history (we run along a wooded riverside path and many branches were snapping under the weight of the snow); things weren't looking good. Then the news came through - the Riverbank Rollick was postponed until April.

There were huge sighs of relief in Rhiwderin.
I'd been increasingly half-hearted about the prospect of running through mud and water, up grassy slopes and along the Severn Estuary in cold, wintry conditions. Thanks to the icy, arctic weather, I'd done hardly any distance running since Christmas. A spring date bode well with regard to weather conditions; with a bit of luck, there might not be any mud underfoot at all!

Last weekend, the outlook was looking good. When Harri and I completed our final two walks on Gower, the coastal paths had almost completely dried out. From the evidence on the ground, it was hard to believe that the winter just gone had been exceptionally wet. Things were looking promising for a good weekend rollick.

But if you can rely on one thing, it's the unpredictability of the British weather. By mid week, it was raining again with forecasts of heavy showers at the weekend. 

By Saturday evening, we'd accepted that the Riverside Rollick was going to be a wet affair. Feel the fear and do it anyway, I told myself.

Lliswerry ladies were out in force
So I did it, I ran the nine-mile Riverbank Rollick and I can't believe how much I enjoyed the whole, mucky experience. Thankfully, the rain held off while we were running and though yanking one's shoes out of squelchy, clay-like mud was never going to be easy, I somehow managed to stay upright.

What really made the event special though was the wonderful camaraderie between runners.
I've always laughed at the tags 'attached' and 'unattached', wondering how someone who runs at my speed could ever be attached to Lliswerry legends like Keith, who recently completed a 100-miler, Speedy Gonzales (and appropriately named) Miles, or the amazing and very modest Emma, still in her teens and with a lifetime of running successes ahead of her. 
Still smiling at around 7.5 miles

Yet race with your running club and suddenly you are very much attached, even if you're never going to be one of the first four across the line (the only times that count for team prizes).  I wore my Lliswerry vest (still sporting its Welsh dragon on the back) with pride and loved the noisy encouragement from faster team members as I splashed through the final stream (the sting in the tail) and raced (uphill again) towards the finishing line.

The fact I finished at all, however, is due to the support of three friendly Hogsweed Trotterswho offered me encouragement throughout the race, and, most importantly, towards the end when I started doubting my ability to keep going. 

Cross-country running is tough - even tougher than road running. You need your wits about you when you're plodding along a squelching bridle path with a stream on one side. 

There are fields to slip and slide across, stiles to climb and rough terrain to trip you over. It's almost impossible to switch off, to get into 'the zone', before the next challenge confronts you.
The hill that brought many of us to our knees 

A long, steep field climb faced us as we neared the eight-mile mark, followed by another muddy track, a fence to clamber over and finally, in the woods, a rope with which to haul ourselves up the almost vertical footpath. 

For me, the toughest section was undoubtedly the mile-long riverside stretch along the Severn (between Oldbury-on-Severn and Littleton-on-Severn). Though flat and grassy, it was completely open to the elements, specifically a strong, gusting wind. Despite my best efforts, I knew I was slowing down and I couldn't help feeling a bit demoralized as runners I'd passed in the first three miles came flying past me.

My finishing time was 1:47:41. Harri was waiting, already changed into his warm clothes. He'd completed in an amazing 1:11:02 despite very little training (he cycles more often than he runs!).

Fellow Lliswerry Runner, Ruth and me. Happy to have finished.
I'm starting to love all the statistics that go with running. Within an hour or so of getting home, we were able to see that Harri had averaged 7.58 minute miles, while I'd taken three minutes more to pass each mile marker (11.57). This statistical breakdown certainly explains how crossed the finishing line a full 36 minutes ahead of me.  

So were Claire and Zara right about cross-country racing being great fun? You bet they were! 

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