Why the Raven? So, its mid-October and I’m on the home straight in preparations for the Cheviot Goat in December in Northumberland. For those not in the know, the Goat is a 55-mile Winter Ultra that has all the ingredients of a proper challenge. At times above the snow line of the Cheviot hills, at times with up to waist deep mud and peat covered bogs, but always with the climb associated with the reputation of the Cheviot Summit (815 m). Key here is that the total elevation on the Goat is around 9500ft, so, finding some suitable training grounds in the South of England is not the most straightforward quest…
Bring on the Raven
My wonderful wife, Elaine, somehow found this one and stated that it would be a great practice route for me to run 35 miles at night with around 8000ft of elevation… and it was less than an hour’s drive from us! As I ummed and ahhed about it, she had merrily signed me up! No major drama, it meant I was in and committed… just one minor problem, my initial hesitation was caused by having only that morning, signed myself up to the do the Ultra London 55 the Saturday one week before the Raven 35 miler!
In for a Penny…
I’m a V50 runner on the cusp of V55 and so whilst I consider myself young and fit, my body (and my Physio) sometimes disagree… Regardless, I’d be banking on a good and fast recovery between the two events. In the summer, I had run the Essex 50 miler two weeks after discovering a small tear in my right Gastrocnemius and my Physio had sorted that. I had a relatively fast recovery after that event, so I felt confident it was going to be doable.
Where’s my Canary?
The Raven 35 was described as a night race comprising two distance options, the Marathon distance and the 35-mile run which Elaine had unilaterally signed me up for. They were test runs for a new four race series starting in 2020 that will run in Spring, Summer, Autumn & Winter to test runners across all four of the seasons.
Start/Finish and the RaceHQ were at Mickleham Village Hall which down a back lane in Mickleham just outside of Dorking.
We’d been at the One Tree Hill Cross Country in the morning and so headed over after we’d finished there to ensure there were no last-minute traffic dramas. As usual – I’d forgotten something… my vest was hanging up at home with my first liquid load and my mandatory kit… including the all-important Canary!
The Canary was something that was explicitly listed in the mandatory kit list and feeling quite chuffed with myself over finding the ‘world’s smallest Canary soft toy’, I was looking forward to the kit check. After a short detour and a wasted ten minutes we were on our way to Dorking, this time with the vest.
We were early so headed into Dorking which we discovered was mostly shut! I found somewhere for a coffee and headed back to the painless registration, usual ‘blood chit’ and kit check.
Ready to go but still early, we kept out of everyone else’s hair whilst I worked out what to run in… it was raining (spoiler alert, it rained all night!) and so I ended up in 2XU MCS running tights, a triathlon top under my Inov8 Raceshell jacket and a pair of Hoka Evo Speedgoats over my Injinji socks.
This was comprehensive enough with the usual warnings about dangerous parts of the course (basically a fair proportion of the 8.75-mile lap – to be completed four times). Watching the RD deliver the brief with an obvious smile (might even have been a smirk but I’d ditched my glasses by then) as he described the ‘Kamikaze Run’ quite close to the start and the ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ downhill towards the end was a little unnerving but I thought it was probably all for show. I found out later, it wasn’t!
I’ll summarise… climb, climb again, dangerous downhill bit, cross a road, wet grass, wetter still flint/rocks, climb again, dangerous downhill etc… you get the picture.
The bonus for us was that due to the inclement weather, we would now be able to replenish food and water in the village hall weather than outside and we could even have a drop bag available to us in the hall. This was very useful for me as I like a change of scenery at transition and checkpoints etc. to keep me sane (I know, I know, you’re reading this thinking that ship has long since sailed).
Briefing done, onto the start line, pitch black at 19.59, were off an it’s out of the Village hall yard and off up a modest drag on tarmac until we go through a gate and then the first climb… so that was the start and I ran knowing that whatever came next, I’d have to go through this another three times before I finished!
Camaraderie vs Kamikaze and Sometimes Both!
I was running solo… that means the race lives or dies based on one’s mental resilience and staying out of trouble since you know your training has got you to a level of fitness that should see you through otherwise why bother turning up!
I was in running the Ultra and amongst a number of likeminded people, unfortunately, a reasonable number of the marathon runners appeared to have bottled it, been put off by the weather or were facing injuries preventing them from turning out. Pity really as it might have helped me later on!
Luckily, I got talking to another Ultra runner who had a rough time getting down the Kamikaze Run… literally bouncing his way from top to bottom. I was fortunate enough to get down it in one piece at a relatively quick pace but ended up jumping, leaping salmon style, over casualties and fallers whilst descending the aptly named decent.
We kept pace reasonably well for a while and it helped make good progress on the first lap. Plenty of places to get a wiggle on and pass others but also plenty of wet, muddy, slippery descents and climbs… and then there was the livestock.
The Hills Have Eyes!
No, really… they did… over a stile and into a filed and then bang! A half dozen pairs of white lights looking right at you like a scene from a Stephen King novel…
Ok… so the owner of the lights which turned out to be eyes were pretty tame but navigating at speed on a relatively narrow track around cattle (its till raining) and trying not to go over on the ice like lack of friction from the slurry based cow pats is always tough… but I hadn’t seen nothing yet!
Over the fence the other end of this stretch and we were into the track of where the cattle had been previously grazing, but this time, it was clear why they had been moved on… there was literally nowhere else for the beasts to defecate and as a consequence, the next couple of hundred yards were treacherous! Slip sliding along it became clear you needed to get some momentum to prevent the risk of slipping and falling over in this stuff… someone did fall over in front of me and yelped ‘help’… I yelped ‘no’ and ran on at my toppest speed with the same vigour normally reserved for running away from Zombies… only another three times more through this stretch I thought!
Steps, Steps and More Steps
Onwards and upwards, literally…. Luckily most of the ‘up’ by this stage comprised ‘drags’ rather than out-and-out climbs but now we were heading into the area where we were originally going to traverse a river using stepping stones. In the Race Briefing it was made clear that these stones where submerged (have I mentioned it rained all night?) so we’d be expected to go over a bridge now… I kept this in mind but I still hadn’t arrived at the point where the bridge was when I was faced with a slippery descent down steps cut into the side of the hill and shored up with wood… bit of a challenge to tackle quickly as each step presented differing dimensions.
Nevertheless, the seemingly never-ending down eventually flattened out to the base of the footbridge and over we went to be presented with a shortish loop around a wooded area before back to the bridge and then… yes you worked it out, back up the steps to ascend Box Hill!
This was tough. The ascent of the steps I’d come down only minutes early was hard but this wasn’t the half of it. Literally. When we reached the top of the steps we had previously come down, there was a new fork in the path for us to take and we immediately happened across a small group of people having a party. I kid you not. Pouring with rain on a Saturday night and they were singing songs and drinking beer… tempting as it was to stop and join in under their makeshift rain shelter, I carried on up the hill.
The worst of this ascent was still to come and it was just getting tougher. Probably only some 200m but it was taking its toll. I made good progress but it was real hands on knees stuff at times – very reminiscent of fell running but heading up the unequal steps demanding a higher knee lift and preventing a sensible rhythm. At last, at the top… sadly no it’s a blind summit and we do a right turn and ascent more steps. When we eventually got to the top of Box Hill, the Marshal sent us across a field and told us to head for a break in the treeline. I took the wrong break and spent a minute working out where I’d gone wrong before doubling back and working my way along the tree line, lo and behold, an arrow indicating the correct direction of travel and I was off.
I assumed that it must be downhill from here as we were at the top of Box Hill and got a wiggle on. Moving at pace and happy with my progress and I put some proper effort into ending this first lap knowing there was only a little under two miles of the lap left. This felt a good pace and made up for all the climbing the other side of the hill but I knew I still had the aggressive downhill affectionally called ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ left to do.
WTF: Satan’s Stairs to the Earworm
Ok… so no-one mentioned Satan’s Stairs (I only arrived at the name after later laps) but having descended down to a road crossing, I was then faced with a near vertical staircase cut into the side of yet another hill! Hands on knees again and up I went… this was harder than the earlier steps and my quads were burning by the time I reached the top.
There is little I can say other than this last climb caught me on the hop. Once at the top I treated myself to a recovery pace and meandered through the woods seemingly doubling back on myself but taking care to follow the glow sticks, hazard tape and occasional arrows.
Finally, we started to descend again and this time it was for real… Muddy. Slippery and treacherous in the rain but we were heading down! Eventually, a quick right turn followed by an almost immediate left turn onto the prewarned downhill named, ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’. Unfortunately named for me since it immediately meant I was running downhill on a slippery surface with my concentration broken by singing the theme tune to the TV series ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’!
This downhill caught quite a few people out on the first lap… I was lucky and managed to stay on my feet although I’m not really sure how.
Sprint to the End of the Lap
Once the terrain levelled out it quickly ‘felt’ more urban and there we were, running down a footpath behind some buildings before turning left to behind the Churchyard. A right turn through the graveyard followed by a short uphill drag and that was it… first lap completed.
And the Rest?
So… first lap finished in around 1.50, a quick refill for my vest and then off again. After the first lap, the Marshalls from the first lap had gone and I was on my own… With the exception of passing through Race HQ, I ran the rest of the race without seeing another person on the course until the third lap when towards the end, I was passed by the two leaders of the Ultra and then that was it… not another person until I finished!
It was dark, wet and some mistakes were made. I fell over in the mud but luckily not the slurry and I took a couple of wrong turns that I needed to reverse out of. I also forgot to change head torch batteries at the end of the first lap and struggled to see anything for much of Lap Two.
My nutrition was good and hydration was adequate. With so many DNFs, I was pleased to have finished and never once had the thought to withdraw crossed my mind. I had resolved at the start that they wouldn’t get me to bang the damn gong and pull out!
So… I really enjoyed it. It was hard, wet, slippery, muddy and hilly with lots of quite dangerous technical terrain to traverse or ascend/descend. I came 8th out of the 11 who finished the Ultra and I think four finished the Marathon distance. I don’t know exactly how many started as the results aren’t out yet, but I know that there were quite a lot of DNFs and that makes the outcome even better for me. I’ll post some geek stats when I have an official result but, in the meantime, I have summarised the event, its organisation and the like below.
- Pre event comms… 3 out of 5.
- RaceHQ Organisation and Pre-Race Briefing… 5 out of 5.
- Course Route Markings… 4 out of 5.
- Marshalling… 3 out of 5.
- Food and hydration at RaceHQ… 4 out of 5.
- Medal, mementos and results… 3 out of 5.
- Course difficulty… was it a real challenge: 5 out of 5.
- Overall… 27 out of 35
- I’m not a big Facebook user and that’s where most of the comms were delivered.
- RaceHQ was well organised although the end of the first lap felt a little lack lustre as it felt like I successfully snuck in without anyone noticing unlike many other events where there is normally at least one person cheering you through… this was different on subsequent laps which felt much better for cheering runners through.
- Course markings comprised hazard tape dangling in the trees, glow sticks and arrows. The arrows usefully had the event name on so runners could tell if they had been tampered with. They were mostly effective but as the night progressed, some of the glow sticks proved a little difficult to spot as they were barrelling towards their last legs!
- Marshalling was very good on the first lap but non-existent on subsequent laps. This made the race a much more solitary affair and at times felt like it was easy to come a cropper. I heard at least two other runners at the finish disclose that they had missed the bridge loop which was well marshalled on the first lap and I suspect they did this unintentionally by picking up the trail by observing a reversed arrow making it feel like you should turn early and head back up Box Hill.
- My personal choice would have been to have a little more savoury/fat-based foods at the RaceHQ but it was well stocked and a good range. I would also have liked a coffee/tee urn on the go rather than having to ask for a coffee.
- Medal was ok and this race ditched the t-shirt in favour of the more useful event buff which I personally thought was a good move. The results as I write this are not yet confirmed. Free photos were also provided which I have used to populate this report and these are always welcome.
- The team put together a fantastic course that was a real challenge although in some places dangerous, it was doable but hard/harsh.
Feel Free to follow my descent into madness or, ’what the wife made me do next’ here