Sandstone Trail Time Attack 2015
Being our local trail and nearest ultra, this event has steadily attracted more Spartans year by year and now has a special place in my calendar.
I have run the full distance about 9 times now, so I am pretty familiar with the route.
This includes two epic, cold December night time headtorch runs, with my last pilgrimage coming on a hot Easters day with Dave and Andy. I guess we must like this trail!
> Hot and cold versions!
This year was my 4th consecutive entry and I have improved my performance on each occasion, culminating with a first place last year on a very damp day with added bonus nettles.
So where do you go from there?!
I like to set myself a fresh challenge and I also try to be a realist with my expectations. This years line up saw a number of fast runners toe-ing the start line.
I’m certainly not a defeatist, but defending the title was not my goal, even before Charlie Sharpe popped up late in the day.
> Before the start with Jonathan, preparing for his first ultra distance
Although I planned to race right from the start, I was actually strictly in time trial mode, with a sub 5 hour finish as my number one goal focus. This would represent another PB and around 80 mins improvement on my first attempt 3 years ago.
Whether this was a realistic goal is debatable, as the quality of this years running hasn’t been on par with last year, plus a broken toe stole 4 weeks of training. However, a reasonable Highland Fling race 2 weeks ago boosted my endurance confidence, hopefully without leaving my legs on empty for today.
Competitiveness within our club is just great and as the mass of some 20 odd Spartans lined up at 8.30am in Whitchurch, it was sure to be a tear up from the outset.
> Ready, set, leg it!
Given the coiled springs stood all around me, surprisingly I found myself leading the field again down the narrow alley from the start. I had worked out my times to each of the 5 checkpoints from last year and I was using that as a gauge to pace myself along with my HRM and hopefully find the 9 minutes required to hit my goal.
With this in mind, after the relief of seeing the canal bridge down and safely in place this year, I was happy to blast over it and then be passed by Dave as the lead group charged off along the towpath. The pace along the canal is always high; the early exuberance fuelling the speed, plus the desire to make the most of some easy terrain and make a break before the many stiles and fields slow things a bit after 4 miles.
The first mile was sub 7 min pace, followed by 3 more at 7 min pace and it was certainly quicker than I had anticipated. Despite letting the first 5 runners pull away from me as I steadied my own pace, as we approached CP1 I was already 6 minutes up on last year. Some cows with rather pointy horns right on course in the middle of a field also made for an interesting bit of dodgems!
After a quick cup of orange juice at a welcoming Spartan CP1 I dashed off, happy with the pace and feeling comfortable.
The run to CP2 includes the climb up over Maiden Castle before an enjoyable fast descent down to Bickerton Church. The short stiff climb was about the only section that I walked all day, taking my cue from the guys just in front, none of whom were taking any ultra style walk breaks for the inclines!
I maintained my 6 minute positive gain on last years split to CP2, fuelled up again with juice and a couple of jaffa cakes, losing a place in the process and then headed out towards Rawhead and Peckforton, another favourite section of trail.
> So many Jaffa Cakes, so little time!
CP3 sits at the bottom of the drop off the Peckforton hills at 16 miles, just before the halfway point. Now 4 mins ahead of last year and still feeling good, the endurance section of the numerous fields beyond Beeston lay ahead. These always seem to be a bit of a slog; not very interesting scenery and heavy going over cloggy ploughed fields. I moved up a place back into 6th just before the A51 Rode St crossing.
CP4 at Rock Farm is placed just after a bit of a climb through fields and is a welcome sight. However, still no walking allowed up through the fields on the approach, as I tracked the green vest of Chris from Helsby ahead of me. We exchanged a quick hello at the CP as he headed out and I slurped down some more orange juice and jaffas. I was now 8 mins ahead of last year and set off up the climb to Willington, dodging several Landrovers and horses coming down the narrow sandy track.
At the top of the climb at Summertrees, I caught up with Chris and pressed onwards to Grestys Waste, now in 5th place. The prospect of almost reaching Spartan home turf gave motivation for me to keep pushing.
Safely over the A54 at Grestys Waste, then as I dropped down the farm track along the western fringes of Old Pale, I caught sight of Spartan Chris not far ahead and then passed Paul C heading up in the opposite direction and offering encouragement.
The marathon distance point is just short of Barnes Bridge, where I knew that Sian and the girls were waiting.
I picked up Chris along the main forest track and we ran together to BBG, reaching marathon distance in 3:51, still about 9 minutes ahead of last year. The sound of cowbells announced the presence of the family at Ashton Road, which was a nice lift to the spirits and I pressed ahead to Manley, moving into 4th place.
CP5 at Manley came and went, with 9 minutes still in hand and the prospect of beating 5 hours still definitely a possibility. I declined any drinks and moved on quickly, as Adam, the 3rd place runner was just ahead of me and was a great motivating focus to keep up the effort and pace. Since leaving BBG my pace had been slightly better on the inclines allowing me to close in, but with every downhill his pace was stronger and just carried him away from me.
Fatigue was now setting in and not long after the short Manley road section, Kelvin from Wirral AC just breezed past both me and then Adam and comfortably vanished into the distance and into 3rd place. Back to 5th then, with the elastic between 4th and myself slowly stretching longer and longer.
Leah had popped up at multiple places in the last few miles to give Chris support and a friendly face was a very welcome distraction from the fatigue threatening to impact my positivity.
Come on Nick, time to dig in and not let the pace slip any further. I shouted at myself a couple of times, thankfully only a few cows witnessing my expletives. Cramp had been niggling at my calves for a little while. I broke out the emergency gel flask. I haven’t used a gel in a race since the SST last year, but now I needed a rapid boost for the last few miles.
Soon after, Tim appeared on my shoulder and we ran together past the caravan park and then up the first part of the Frodsham climb to 31 miles.
I reached the metal staircase at Jacobs Ladder, where as I wearily stumbled upwards, the dulcet tones of CBH from Helsby harangued me back into life and I picked my chin up and pushed to the monument, calves now cramping with every footstep.
6 minutes to reach the finish line. Hmm. Pull the pin time. Damn, I already did that hours ago!
I threw myself down the sludgy zigzags and onto the road, past the Ring O Bells. God knows what my running form must have looked like, but I charge / hobbled down the alleyway and onto the field as my watch hit 4:59. More cowbells rang out and I somehow made it to the door of the Community Centre before my calves finally rebelled and put me on my arse.
> Final metres of agony before the ecstasy
Clock stopped at 4 hrs 59 mins 47 seconds. Job. Done.
A PB of just over 9 minutes. Perfect pacing!!
> The face of happiness. You can’t quite see the cold sausage being offered by my kids!
You just cannot bottle that feeling of euphoria having achieved a hard target.
5th place and second Spartan home behind Dave who ran a very gutsy 4.44 for second place.
> Three happy Spartans in the top six
2015 saw a steady SST time improvement in my short ultra running career:
There were some epic performances from everyone today. 5 Spartans in the top 10, with great debut efforts as well as PB’s from several folk.
This is definitely one of my favourite events and the post race service provided by the Helsby team and scout volunteers is unparalleled.
Pie, peas & gravy, fruit salad, jam scones, copious tea all served to you while you sit and recover. Magic!
> A trio of SST chumps, sorry, champs
This was my last Ultra as an MV40 as I head to the new world of MV50 next month and the Ultimate Trails 110k.
I doubt it’s going to get any easier though, so I keep this club ethos close at hand at all times: Never Surrender!