Many of you will know of my long-time resistance of joining a running club. The reasons why are long enough to be part of another post, so won’t be discussed here, but I will talk about my first foray into team running. Read on to find out how things went in the Cotswolds…
What is the Cotswold Hilly 100?
Organised by Stratford-upon-Avon Athletics Club for over 25 years, it’s a 100 mile team relay race that starts in Stratford-upon-Avon before winding its way through the Cotswolds, eventually finishing back in Shakespeare’s home town.
Clubs can enter a number of teams consisting of men, women and mixed genders. Each team can contain a maximum of 10 members, each running an approximate 10 mile leg. Teams are expected to support their own members with navigation, marshalling, hydration, and nutrition.
As the race’s name suggests, it’s not flat! Some legs are trickier than others, though it’s safe to say none are considered easy when everybody’s racing for position.
Leamington Spa Striders and Kenilworth Runners have dominated the male team rankings, finishing first and second respectively in recent years.
Who are the Cannon Hill Crusaders?
And how did I come to come to run for the Cannon Hill Crusaders?
If I had to best describe the Cannon Hill Crusaders, I would liken them to Marvel’s Avengers. Common to both The Avengers and The Cannon Hill Crusaders is the occasionally evolving line-up, dependent on the situation. Whereas members are typically from the BRAT club, there are also members from Bournville Harriers, Bromsgrove & Redditch AC, Shabba Runners of Walsall, and those who are unattached. The common link is that everybody is a regular at Cannon Hill parkrun.
I’ve known several of the Crusaders for a number of years and I was actually asked to participate in a race with them on a previous occasion, though declined due to non-compatibility with my then schedule (it was the Equinox 24). Fast-forward to earlier this year and I received an out of the blue message from team captain, Andy Young, scoping out my feelings of participating in the Cotswold Hilly 100. The date of the race fell 2 weeks after the Shakespeare Half Marathon, so I figured I would be in decent shape and it would serve as another opportunity to keep the pot boiling ahead of summer racing.
This was the team roster for the event:
- Jort van Mourik (15.8km, 47m ascent)
- Paul Shackleton (15.9km, 292m ascent)
- Steve Dunsby (17.1km, 191m ascent)
- Nathan Warren (15.9km, 229m ascent)
- Ashley Fawke (15.5km, 121m ascent)
- Andy Young (16.3km, 217m ascent)
- Andy Yu (16.5km, 97m ascent)
- Huw Jones (15.4km, 94m ascent)
- Adam Western (15.6km, 166m ascent)
- Toby Close (16.3km, 108m ascent)
I requested a mid-morning to mid-afternoon slot, so ended up with leg 7, which also seems to be the leg that everybody has experience of as former participants. Whilst being one of the less demanding legs of the day, it still includes 97m of elevation gain across 10.3 miles, and features nearly 2 miles of climbing from 5.5 miles. Leg 7 thankfully ends with 2 miles of steep downhill, though it can only be truly taken advantage of if one hasn’t blown to bits on the preceding climbs…
Andy Young took care of much of the team’s organisation, such as availability of support cars, estimated timings of baton handovers, and more. I was estimated to begin running at circa-13:30, though I assured I would be in position from 13:00 onwards. Being the bank holiday weekend, I sold the race as an opportunity for Lis and I to explore a bit of the Cotswolds, namely Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton-in-Marsh which are leg 7’s respective start and end points. Whilst I would have liked to have witnessed and supported on some of the other legs, I wasn’t sure how useful I would be as the newcomer to the team, so I simply did as I was requested without adding further complication to be factored in.
Lis and I spent a charming morning in Stow-on-the-Wold before making our way to the leg 7 start point. What we needed to bear in mind was the approximate nature of the maps provided by the race organisers, and Google Maps’ translation into postcodes for navigation. After a few wrong turns, we eventually located the handover point with plenty of awaiting runners and their support teams ready to spring into action.
It was interesting to observe how the different clubs and teams approached the race. Some were very much in it to win it (Leamington Spa Striders and Kenilworth Runners), whereas others were there for fun and the challenge. Kenilworth Runners had a people carrier with green and white balloons attached for the avoidance of doubt for their faster team members. One core requirement is that all teams must have finished by 18:00 that day, so everybody is given the opportunity to start at 05:00, 06:00 or 07:00, and explained why there was so much traffic going through, with slower teams starting earlier.
I received real-time updates from the rest of the team out on the course, which proved to be rather exciting. Ashley Fawke took us from 7thto 4thall within leg 5 for a tremendous performance. Sadly, the Massey Ferguson club fielded a very strong runner for the 6thleg, overtaking Andy Young to put us back into 5thplace. To give you an idea of just how strong their runners was, he completed his leg in around 59 minutes; back when 10 mile races were far more common, a sub-60 minute performance in a flat 10 mile race was and still is a good club runner standard – to run 59 minutes within a Cotswold Hilly 100 leg is some good going! Two Stratford-upon-Avon AC members from separate teams arrived next, after some cock-up with their end points to leave their team manager spitting feathers on the phone wondering where they were.
In the distance was Andy Young, sprinting towards me with everything he had to pass the baton (a 10cm long piece of plastic drain pipe). It was time to show my team what I had!
Fully warmed up and mildly tapered, I was bursting with energy as I propelled down the country lane. I wanted to rein the pace in a little, especially as I was initially running downhill and had to leave something for the undulations and climbs that followed.
Knowing how poor my sense of direction can be at times, I elected to trial a new feature of my Garmin 935 – turn-by-turn navigation! Before the race, I plotted the leg 7 course via Garmin Connect and uploaded it to the 935. When you’re in position, it presents the route as a green line and the current position as an arrow. The trick is to keep your position arrow on the green line! Accompanying the display is an arrow for North and another arrow pointing towards the finish (useful for ad-hoc shortcuts). I was happy to test the feature because I knew the Crusaders would be out on the course to marshal me at major junctions, so there was no risk if it failed. And do you know what? It lived up to its promise and was flawless! Sharp turns were alerted in advance with a corresponding left or right arrow, whereas gradual turns simply had you follow the green line. The only downside is you’re not presented with a map and only a green line on a white background – for true maps, you need the Fenix 5X with its larger, higher resolution screen. This is largely not a problem on simple junctions, though could prove to be an issue on complex roundabouts with multiple exits within close proximity to each other; you would only know you’ve taken the wrong exit once your position arrow no longer lines up with the green line on the other side. Aside from that, it’s golden!
With the above bit of technology proving to be a little miracle, I opted to keep my Garmin on the route face to leave me running largely without data feedback. I knew not of my pace or distance covered apart from when my Garmin triggered a 1 mile interval alert. I was racing to feel and hoping that I’d pitched the effort correctly… Heck, even if I wanted to rely on the data, I’d accidentally hit the lap button on my Garmin to become an OCD sufferer’s worst nightmare!
As promised, some of the guys were waiting at the bottom of the junction for me, with the rest further on at the next one. Adam Western – the team’s other new member – offered me water, whilst the others held on to two gels I’d given them just before the start of my leg.
Whereas Birmingham was being drowned by torrential rain and flash flooding, the Cotswolds was sunny overhead and warm. I did wonder if I was overcooking things as I rapidly got up to what felt like race effort, with my breathing at perhaps 8/10 in terms of intensity.
At the next major junction was the second half of the team. Whilst an unusual situation for me, I 100% appreciated the regular, albeit brief, company I received from the Crusaders. The team and Darryll Thomas had both warned me beforehand that it can be a very lonely run and that it’s unlikely I would see other competitors out there. The support I received continued for the next couple of miles without any change, barring Lis who tried to follow the route to also provide a few additional cheers alongside the guys.
The sun was really starting to beat down on me, so the regular water provided was mana from heaven, with more of it going on me than in me for instant relief from the warm conditions. I eventually zoned out because the countryside is the countryside, whether you’re in the Cotswolds or Wales. To further add to my own confusion and disconnect, I received the first of my gels at what I thought to be mile 4 as requested, though it was probably nearer 2.5 to 3 miles.
Turning at a sharp corner, I was presented with a view of the two Stratford-upon-Avon AC runners that had started minutes before me. Chasing them down became a new objective, though neither of them were much trouble and I’d reeled them both in over the course of several hundred metres. This is where the story takes a humorous turn, for I’d taken a bottle from team member, Adam. Not wanting to carry it until the next time I saw the team, which could have been minutes or miles, I heard a car approaching me from behind and reasoned it to be either Crusader car 1 or 2. As they pulled alongside me, they grabbed the bottle and that should have been a job jobbed. But no. It turned out to be the team manager for Stratford-upon-Avon AC! “Don’t worry, your team will be along to pick it up,” she said, before tossing it on to the grass on the side of the road before driving off into the distance. The Crusaders were only just behind by perhaps 10m and none of us could figure out what had just happened. The rest of the team thought it was Lis in that car, because why else would she have taken the bottle? All very befuddling…
Having overtaken two of the host club’s runners, I received a boost and new motivation to keep pushing – critical, as the near-2 miles of climb had arrived. Whilst I had survived the many short climbs up to this particular point, the heat now made things especially daunting. I normally have a quick cadence at my disposal, but for the first time in the entire race, I felt like I was running through treacle and making little to no progress upwards, but I continued pushing. As the latest member of the team, I couldn’t face being the one to let everybody down! And besides, I also had Barry Fallon’s 2017 leg 7 performance to keep me plugging away! It was also on this particular climb that I first met fellow team-member, Ashley Fawke, supporting me with some water and some encouragement.
Post-climb and at one of the following team support stations, Jort van Mourik shared some new intel with me. Catching me off-guard, he revealed I’d managed to reduce Massey Ferguson’s 6 minute lead down to just some 2 minutes. With a little over 2 miles of the leg remaining and all the climbing completed, was I able to reduce the gap any further? I’m unsure if the delay in the progress update was intentional to maximise potency, or just a coincidence of the timing; nonetheless, I treated it as the former and ploughed on with chipping time away.
Turning the corner for the steep downhill descent into Moreton-in-Marsh, I caught a glimpse of the Massey Ferguson runner who’d started minutes before me. I was instructed by my team to run facing traffic on the right-hand side of the road, much like I’m wont to do on the country lanes of Wales. The Massey Ferguson runner, either through ignorance or on purpose due to chasing shortest line, ran on the left with high-speed traffic coming up behind him… By this stage, I was pretty tired and the heat had taken a toll on me; I’m not sure I was able to truly capitalise on the downhill stretch and I prayed for my quads and what condition they would be in over the following day or two.
Once the course levelled out, the team were there again with rousing support and two final details to keep stoking my competitive fire inside. The Massey Ferguson runner ahead of me had been chopped down to just a minute’s lead and, crucially, held third place for his team. Like a red rag to a bull, this was all I needed to hear before firing up the afterburners to give chase with everything I had.
I returned to running on the pavement to eventually overtake a female Kenilworth Runner, fully laden with a hydration pack; I could only guess she was on a team with less strategic support to have to carry her own nutrition during the race. I’ve since heard of stories of some runners having to walk their 10 mile legs in reverse to get back to their own cars! If a team can’t provide a support car for their runners, then should they really be fielding a team?
Being reeled in ever more was the Massey Ferguson runner, by this point probably only some 30 seconds and a few hundred metres away from me. Seeing my team for the last time before the finish of my leg, they offered water once more to which I declined for fear of it slowing me down and breaking my stride. I was firing on all cylinders and I hoped that I wouldn’t run out of road before I could catch my target! The path that lead into Moreton-in-Marsh was not designed for competitive running, for it was pretty much single file; I had to bellow a number of times to alert other users that I would be passing, to which they all kindly obliged and gave way to me. Sensing only a few hundred metres of the leg remaining from the increasing number of cars parked and in traffic, I laid on a kick in a last ditch attempt to grind Massey Ferguson’s 6 minute advantage down to zero. He was now only some 60m away from me, but the sight of Lis and the team confirmed my fears that I had run out of race; I kicked with what was left to hand the baton over to Huw Jones to continue with leg 8, confident that I had made a worthwhile contribution to the Cannon Hill Crusaders that afternoon.
Here’s the Strava data for leg 7. I neglected to stop my Garmin correctly due to following a course, so I’ve had to crop the Strava performance to an approximate level.
Dehydrated and feeling nauseous from the heat, I dropped to one knee and couldn’t stop panting as I tried to cycle as much air into and out of my lungs as possible. Adam gave me some water to spray myself down with and congratulated me on my efforts, as did the rest of the team. Ever the perfectionist, Andy asked me if I could have somehow found another 12 seconds inside me to have drawn neck and neck with Massey Ferguson; I retorted in jest and asked if he could have finished his leg 12 seconds faster to have given us the same net result. My Garmin reported a 5.0 maximum aerobic effort and a 72 hour recovery window; in other words, I’d wrung myself dry out there!
Lis and I parted with the team, who went on to support Huw on his leg. Humorously, it was later revealed that Huw and Massey Ferguson were locked in a stalemate battle, with neither conceding much to the other. Whilst Huw was the stronger of the two on the climbs, Massey Ferguson’s runner was better at capitalising on the descents, with the 12 second deficit remaining constantly intact.
The Cannon Hill Crusaders made their marks during legs 9 and 10, where we ended up with an advantage of over 3 minutes to finish third place on the men’s podium!
I thoroughly enjoyed my time, albeit brief, with the Cannon Hill Crusaders. This was probably one of the most challenging races I’ve ever competed in because it was more than just about timing and pacing, but rather actual racing. Never having run for a club before, let alone a team, it was an entirely new experience to compete not only for myself, but also for the greater good of others relying on my performance. I’ve already shared that I would be keen to compete again at next year’s race!