Having enjoyed the Watlington XC 10k last December I thought I’d have a go at the inaugural Watlington Skyline 10 mile XC organised by the same team. At less than a fiver to enter and with the clear warning that this was a self-navigated race with marshalling only at major junctions it sounded like an adventure.
I managed to get a copy of the route off a fellow parkrunner and traced it onto my Tracklogs mapping software to reveal 2 sizeable lumps and the potential for great views and some hillwalking. I can do 10 slow, hilly, off-road miles without undue suffering now but not at all fast so set myself the unambitious target of finishing in 1 hour 50 minutes, possibly right at the back.
The forecast got a bit worrying as the 27th November approached with ‘the worst storm since 1987’ ominously predicted to arrive the following day. It looked like we might stay dry though if I didn’t drag it out too long and at 11am a rather small band of runners took off from the start half-way up a track near Pyrton, the chap who started us off also running in a style reminiscent of a good old bare bones Audax ride.
Having made clear to a fellow back of pack runner that I may be depriving her of the wooden spoon a small group of us unhurried trotted along to join the Ridgeway path then turn left to start the first long climb. Not a mile done and I managed to go a bit off route, retracing when I hit a dead end and rejoining the race now right at the back. I’d planned to walk some of this hill to preserve energy but the gradient was quite even so I kept going passing maybe 5 runners in the process.
We topped out on the road near Christmas Common at about 2 miles where we were marshalled left then right to join a long and lovely descent through the woods. Tassles of red and white tape had been tied to trees to mark the route. It was dry, not too cold, not too muddy, the sun even snuck through on occasion. A chap with number 14 on his shirt was just in front, a lady from Abingdon Amblers and another chap just behind. This was fun!
We briefly followed bridleways along the bottom before our path began to gently rise in more open landscape allowing us to see the size of the lump up ahead. There were various kissing gates and stiles along the route. Abingdon & Co set a good, steady pace and I joined them for a while but having studied the profile knew we were in for over a mile of climbing and I’d be wise to walk some of it. So, as the climb steepened around mile 6, I settled into my 50 paces walk, 50 paces run, strategy for a bit. Mr 14 was also taking it easy and I had passed him by the time we reached the road at the top and were marshalled over the bridge at the top of the Stokenchurch Gap where we could see the M40 down below.
Some confusing navigation now, at this time of year there are so many leaves on the ground it’s not always clear that the way you are taking through the woods is actually a path at all, then I emerged by the little car park for Beacon Hill viewpoint where a marshall fortunately appeared to point me the right way. Some muddled math suggested of 5 or so behind me 2 had passed and I’d passed 1 so maybe 5th from the back. I had my Garmin set to show just the time of day but it did flash up each mile time and I reckoned my sub 1:50 was in the bag.
A bit more up then along following a very windswept, narrow, path along the side of that big grass-covered hill you see on the left driving up the Stokenchurch Cut. A marshall took a photo then told me to go left to start descending. Through a gate then a choice of paths, momentary confusion resolved when a couple walking their dogs pointed me left and soon enough I spotted my red and white tape. Below I saw team Abingdon and realised I might yet catch them. Down an old grassy sunken track then a hairpin and more down, looking up above I spotted a runner several minutes back. I was a bit knackered now so not making full use of the descent, through a kissing gate with a box of Aston Rowant nature reserve leaflets and turn left back onto the Ridgeway.
I knew we were going to face a strong headwind heading back west along the Ridgeway but suddenly things got really tough. You could have used the tunnel under the motorway for testing aerodynamics! Despite being nearly flat and no particular bits of me hurting I was back to taking walking breaks. The Garmin buzzing the 9th mile completed felt like ‘on no how can I do another mile’. I thought the organiser had said we would finish on the Ridgeway and not have to run the extra couple of hundred metres back to the start, I really hoped this was true. In retrospect I had good old-fashioned bonk and should have taken an energy gel with me but you never do recognise it when it’s happening.
The finish was beautifully low-key. A lad and a girl sat on stones at the turn-off from the Ridgeway with paper and iPad recording times. A couple of people clapped while someone gave me a bottle of water. My rival for the metaphorical wooden spoon was a little upset that some of them had accidently gone under distance, they had recorded a bit over 9.5 miles while I got the whole 10.1, I think someone had had a go at them for getting in front. It began to rain and I set off back to the car chatting with one of the organising club and spotted number 14 walking ahead of me when surely he should be behind somewhere.
So, with at least 3 accidental under-distances getting past me, maybe I was 2nd last? I was a little bit miffed that runner I’d spotted behind earlier hadn’t passed me when I was walking – I mean who wants to be 2nd last when you can be last-last? In fact the results showed me 39th of 42 with a time of 1:45:04 so 5 minutes ahead of target. The journey home was made interesting by an unexpected outburst of pins and needles in both hands and lower arms rendering me too clumsy to work the CD but fortunately ok to drive – I reckon the knackered nerves in my dysfunctional shoulders had decided to make their opinion of my efforts understood.
An excellent event and I’ve now put my entry in for the Watlington XC December 10k 🙂