Testing, testing: the Belvoir Challenge

When planning my training and events in the run up to the Lakes Traverse, I had a few key events in mind that I wanted to include. The National Cross-Country championships and the Belvoir Challenge marathon were two of them. When it dawned on me that both were on the same day, a decision had to be made. Should I go with my heart and run again on the muddy, beast of a course that is Parliament Hill? Or should I go with my head and opt for a much longer run, one that would enable me to test out every aspect of my training so far? In the end, head won over heart and so on a very cold February morning, I found myself lined up for the start of my first marathon in a while.

Vale of Bevoir - one of my favourite places to run (photo taken earlier in the year)

My aims

I had some specific aims for this run:

  • Practise my race strategy of running the flat sections and the downhills, and walking the uphills
  • Keep my heart rate at an easy effort level, in or below Zone 2 (ideally with an average of around 130)
  • Run on my own (as I'll most likely be on my own in the Lakes)
  • Feel both physically and mentally strong throughout
  • Be able to run and walk normally the next day

To make the ‘testing’ more realistic, I decided to run with the full kit I’ll be carrying in the Lakes. Whilst some were in vest and shorts and carrying nothing, I was laden. In my pack I had 2 litres of water, food for the day, waterproofs, a spare top, first aid kit and bivvi bag. I think the only thing I forgot was my headtorch! What I didn’t do is to run in the shoes I will use for 60 miles, my Hoka Speedgoats. I just didn’t think they’d be grippy enough for the mud, so chose my less cushioned Inov8 Mudclaws instead.

One of my weaknesses in a race is that, once I have a number pinned on me, I tend to set off too fast. Having chatted to the several clubmates and clients that were also running, I got into my zone and reminded myself to forget about what everyone else was doing. It helped that almost everyone I knew was doing the 15-mile route and not the 26. Once the race started, I settled into my groove and headed out for what I planned to be around 6 hours.

To checkpoint 1

In my head I had broken the route down into the 5 sections between checkpoints; the first was just over 5 miles away. Once out of the village this involved a gradual climb, becoming steeper. The ground was frozen, and the course quite crowded, so it was easy to keep my effort level in check. I relaxed and went with the flow. Going up and over the ridge, I could feel the benefit of all my fast-walk training. I was walking comfortably uphill at the same speed others were running. Dropping down the other side to checkpoint one, there were long queues for a couple of stiles. I just saw it as a chance to rest and enjoy the scenery on what was a stunningly beautiful day.

Queuing for the stile...

To the castle

Having plenty of food and drink with me, I ran straight through the first checkpoint without stopping. The course was still quite crowded; I was keen to get to 9 miles, where the routes split. There were some large groups of people trying to run together and I was hoping they were going to take the 15-mile turn. I’ve no problem with people running with a friend, but groups of 8 or 9 on a narrow path? It doesn’t really work. The split soon came and before I knew it I was running through the wooded Belvoir Castle grounds in complete solitude. I could see a couple of guys way ahead, and I knew one was about 100m behind, but that was it. As we climbed up to the top of one of my favourite hills, I felt great. The descent to the next checkpoint was down ‘that’ hill (some of you will know which one I mean from our guided runs!) and I was soon grabbing a quick drink and a slice of cake. I’d started my eating strategy from about an hour into the race. I had my usual ham sandwiches and mini scotch eggs on board. Somehow, I felt I was lacking something, though, and a piece of lemon drizzle did the job.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

With 12 miles done, I headed onto the flatter but muddier part of the route. Whilst some ground was frozen, the mud was a real challenge in places. I’d get into a great running rhythm across one field, only to enter the next field and find that the consistency of the mud was completely different. Some were gloopy, some bouncy and some sticky like strong glue. It certainly made the 5 miles to the next checkpoint interesting. With the course being so much more open, it was now much easier to see where everyone else was. Despite sticking rigidly to my run/walk/easy effort strategy, I started to pass people. Stopping for the portaloo at checkpoint 3, I even managed to pass some of them twice.

Sticky mud, lots of very sticky mud

Back up the hill

I knew that the final climb back onto the ridge would be the toughest. It was the longest climb and was 19 miles into the race. Two weeks previously it had been really slippery in the mud. But the sun was out, the mud had dried up and I felt great all the way up. My fast walking came into its own once again. As I left the final checkpoint at 21 miles (with another piece of lemon drizzle on board!) I knew it was pretty much flat or downhill to the finish. I caught and passed a few walkers from the 15-mile event along the way, plus a few marathon runners too. Having done the shorter event two years ago, I was expecting the last couple of miles across the flatter fields to be a real drag, but they weren’t. I didn’t appreciate the number of stiles, though, but at least they gave my legs a stretch!

Before I knew it, I was back at the village hall and crossing the finish line. I’d been pretty spot on with pacing to my planned time. I finished in 6 hours and 10 minutes, but my actual moving time was 5 hours 43. Those stile queues and loo stops had added up!

My thoughts...

So how did I do against my aims? My race strategy went to plan. I did sneak in a couple of runs on gentler inclines and I did walk a bit on the ‘gluey’ fields but overall it worked well. I kept a really easy effort level all the way round and managed a heart rate average of 135; I’m happy with that. Physically I felt fine all day, absolutely fine. Mentally, the only low point I had was between about miles 7 and 9 where I couldn’t wait for some solitude. My spirit was, of course, helped by the fact it was such a gloriously sunny day. Aside from a few chats with people as we passed, I ran the whole way on my own. And the next day? I managed a very gentle 30-minute run followed by a hilly 6-mile walk, both with very little difficulty. The only discomfort I’ve had is a slightly aching foot. I’m not used to running in Mudclaws over a long distance and I won’t be making that mistake again. Comfort will win over grip!

Heart rate (red), pacing (blue) and course profile

What next?

Overall, my day out at the Belvoir Challenge confirms that my training is on the right track. I’m especially pleased with the progress I’ve made in fast walking; it will really help on the big day, I’ve no doubt. What I need next is some mountains in my legs, some big hills, both uphill and down. Trips to the Dales, Lakes and Devon over the coming weeks will sort that. I also need to give some more thought to food. Food during the race that is – I think about food in general a lot! I don’t think I ate enough at Belvoir. I was fine during the event but my hunger levels over the next 24 hours were high, and I was up raiding the fridge at 5am. At that time the next day on the Lakes Traverse, I’ll still be running….