Hard Rock Challenge

On the weekend, while thousands headed to Gateshead for Sunday’s Great North Run, I headed for south- west Scotland to join a smaller more rugged, or perhaps just fool-hardy, band of runners and cyclists for the Dalbeattie Hard Rock challenge, a team duathlon over 26 miles of forest terrain. I was scheduled to do the 10 mile run before handing over to my team-mate, Paul, who would do the 16 mile bike section. After the high winds and torrential rain on Saturday, Sunday dawned clear and crisp with scarcely a breath of wind: perfect weather for running.

I had decided in advance that I would avoid getting into oxygen debt on the hill climbs, and hope that I could maintain my balance well enough on the descents to make up for lost ground. The first two miles included a long steady ascent during which most the the field forged remorselessly ahead of me. However, I resisted the temptation to push too hard on this ascent, and subsequently over the gently undulating mid-section of the race, I was able to overtake at least a few of the many who had forged ahead of me.

Miles seven, eight and nine were over very rough, hilly terrain. On the descents I followed in the footsteps of a nimble footed young woman who skeetered over the tree roots and rocks like an alpine chamois. She appeared to be a local who knew the course well. I was able to maintain a pace faster than I would have dared if I were running alone. At one point as we descended at reckless speed over some tricky boulders towards a few spectators huddled in a small clearing in the gulley below, they called out ‘Come on, Catherine’ and she answered back: ‘you have only come to see me fall’, but she managed to stay on her feet and I did my best to place my feet exactly as she had done. During the 8th mile I followed close behind as she moved to the head of the string of half a dozen runners whom I had been pursuing for the past few miles.

At this stage I began to plan my strategy for breaking clear of this group. At 8 ½ miles I drew level with the young woman on a moderately steep ascent and even though I was breathing more deeply, I sensed that I was coping equally well with the climb. She was eager to take the lead again when we began the next steep descent and I happily followed close behind. Another small group of spectators shouted out encouragement, one shouting ‘Well done, lady in front’. The tone of voice implied a hint of condescension towards the male runners struggling in her wake. I thought ruefully that on terrain such as this, being elderly was probably a greater handicap than being female. In reality, it was probable that with only a few seconds separating all the runners in our little cluster after more than an hour of competitive running, we were all fairly evenly matched, and it would be mental toughness and strategy that would determine the finishing order. ( I was also aware that some might be solo competitors who would be preserving their energy for the subsequent bike stage – but I had no way of knowing whether any of the cluster were in that category. Nonetheless, I anticipated that the pace would soon quicken).

I knew from reconnoitering the last part of the course during my warm-up that the final half mile was down hill along a well-made track, so near to the 9 mile mark I decided that with the majority of the hard work done, it was now safe to push into the anaerobic zone and allow the lactate to accumulate. I broke away from the group on what proved to be the last substantial ascent of the course. The sound of footsteps behind me faded rapidly and I found myself on my own, somewhat breathless but confident I could sustain the pace to the finish line. As the view of the track opened out in the final half mile, I could see another three runners spread out between 100 and 200 yards ahead of me. There was little chance of overtaking them, but I focused on narrowing the gap as much as possible, and was within 20 yards of the hindermost at the finish. I felt I had run a well paced race. My time was 78 minutes 19 seconds, which allowing for the rough terrain, was very satisfying. My team-mate Paul covered the 16 mile cycle ride in 83 minutes and we were 12th team out of 39 in male team category.

It subsequently emerged that about half of the group with who I had done battle over the final few miles of the run, including the ‘alpine chamois’ who had led me down the steep descents, were actually solo competitors who went on to complete the subsequent 16 mile bike section. This put my ‘triumph’ in the run section into proper perspective, but nonetheless, I still feel pleased that I was able to execute a strategy that got the best out of myself. After a year dogged by ill-health I am starting to feel confident that my strength is returning. In the final months of the year I will concentrate on trying to develop some speed – I have very little idea of what is a reasonable goal to aim for. I would be really delighted if I could get my time for a mile below six minutes.

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