The Green Man Ultra is a race organised by Ultra Running Ltd. It includes the route of the Green Man Challenge, a loop circling Bristol on the Community Forest Path (CFP) and covering a total of 47 miles. This was the second running of the event. I really enjoyed the inaugural event in 2012. There is a good mixture of terrain and, although not too hilly, it’s quite technically demanding, requiring knowledge of the course and a good GPS device. I had a map with me as back-up but I knew that it would be difficult to try to read it at pace.
The first few months of the year had been quite frustrating. I’d been carrying an injury (manifesting as a tight hamstring/glut). This weakness developed further during a 10km cross-country race in January. This was the annual Civil Service vs. RAF select race at the training grounds in RAF Halton. I was a good minute off my 2012 time, but more worrying was the muscles I’d pulled in my lower back and left hip flexor. This was the catalyst for 6 weeks of stiffness and pain, and a few trips to my Physio Helen Smith for manipulation work. On February 2nd I started the 2 x 33mile Pilgrims Challenge Ultra race along the North Downs Way. Despite a solid start in the lead group my back problem spread through the hip and hamstring before completely cramping up the calf, and it was game over.
For the rest of February I worked hard on rehabilitation and increased core, balance and proprioception training. Luckily I shifted the worst of it by the end of February just in time for the Green Man Ultra on March 2nd. It wasn’t the perfect lead-in and my concern was now more for lack of and disrupted sleep. But at least I could now make the start line of another Ultra race and see what happens.
I’d won the inaugural 2012 event in 7hr8min, which also beat the existing Green Man Challenge record. As long as my health/fitness held together, I was confident I could get well under 7hrs. I felt quite stiff last year (following a 3 week period of mountain-running in Lanzarote). Id also improved in fitness and experience over the 12 months. So the plan was to chip away at each checkpoint split from last year and pace to 6hr45min for as long as possible.
My brother Dean was also taking part in the event, his first Ultra. He’d not even raced a marathon before, but we both knew he would get around ok having done circa 30 mile training runs. Myself, Dean and Yve all drove up from Teddington at 5am on a cold Saturday morning. This turned out to be a blessing as the mud was harder than normal.
Just before 8am around 80 runners gathered for the race brief, before heading to the start line outside the Redwood Hotel. Once again the race included a Canicross (dog and runner) category, with a good mixture of dog breeds.
At the gun a couple of Canicross runners took to the front. I had a quick chat with Alex Foster, and Zoltan Lesi who was running with a Blue Merle Border Collie. You could sense the power and enthusiasm of the dog before the race even started, it had mojo. Zoltan told me they are so powerful they can even speed you up in open shorter events. I wondered though how he would manage over the many gates and stiles on the course. They not only finished first (and record) in the Canicross event, but also second overall. After the race I met the winning Canicross relay team. Great dogs, I particularly liked the German Short-Haired Pointer.
The pace from the off was around 6:45/Mile which was comfortable enough as the route started on a slight downhill trail. I didn’t want to push too hard for the first couple of miles, allowing the lower back and hip to loosen up. After a mile my confidence took the better of me and I decided to increase my pace to 6:00-6:30/M. Fast starts are something I’ve been gradually developing in my Ultra races. I like to run from the front anyway but even in the two-three seasons I’ve been racing I’ve noticed starts are getting a lot quicker. Whether or not the same runners can pace themselves optimally throughout the rest of the race is another question. But I’m happy enough to lose a few minutes from an overall time if it means I can keep tabs on my rivals. My (Elagen) Beta-Alanine pre-loading has certainly helped with this. I’d run the course twice before (recce and race) but I still had two Garmin watches on my wrist, I wasn’t taking any chances. As it turned out they both had issues during the race, one of them unable track at all. So you could say my caution was justified.
Miles 2 to 6 were run over muddy fields and farmland to a height of 750ft at Dundry. I wasn’t expecting to have a problem with navigation so early in the race but I found myself circling a field having completely lost my bearings. Luckily enough Alex was not too far behind, on the previous field hill and with a whistle/indication from him I was back on course. I can get quite frustrating making navigational errors in a technical race, but I try to calm myself down and think of it as a recovery period, and making a little time up in the following mile(s).
Summit Fever were the event photographers and I have to say they were fantastic at not only capturing photos and live footage from several points on the course, but also providing plenty of encouragement. They certainly put a smile on my face every time I ran past.
From Dundry I was able to pick the pace up again, straight through to CP1 (Checkpoint 1) at the hall in Morton Malreward where Steve Worallo (race organiser) and another marshal were laying out a selection of foods. I was shocked to see my first split was 1hr14min (7mins quicker than last year). Time lost on navigational was comparable, so I was either running far too quick, or was on good form. I must admit I was close to my limit but I felt pretty good. I scanned the small-cut sandwiches, malt loaf, flap-jacks, chocolates, sweets, and munched on a few items while I refilled my bottle and took a few swigs from the red bull. I wanted to keep weight to a minimum during this race, but still had a decent amount of gels in my pocket to consume between CPs.
Checkpoint 1 – 9.5miles – 1hr14min (2012 – 1hr21)
The route continues over similar terrain until dropping down to the river Chew just before Pensford at 11 miles. For the next five miles the route darts back and forth across the river Chew through the farms and villages until reaching Keynsham at 16 miles and CP2. I tried to keep the effort levels up during this section and waste no time passing through/over the various gates and stiles. There were quite a few of these on the route. At CP2 I was 11mins up on last years time and still feeling pretty good. The hamstring was a little stiff, but this was expected. Once again I forced myself away from the CP as quickly as possible. If I was going to eat I’d rather do it walking. Maybe I was a little too hasty as I realised I’d taken the wrong turn under the lock bridge and had to climb over the lock to get back on course again.
Checkpoint 2 – 16.5miles – 2hr12min (2012 – 2hr23)
The next stage of the race is possibly my favourite, as you first continue along the river for a mile before heading up past the Willsbridge Mill and the start of Dramway and railway line. A great opportunity to stretch the legs out. I was hoping to get my pace back around 6:30-7:00/M at this point but was struggling. My calorific intake was a little below what I took at the Brecon Ultra in November (I struggled a little towards the end of that race). At the Coxgrove Hill Quarry on 23 miles I took a cherry coke Zipvit gel (my new favourite gel) , and when I reached CP3 at 28 miles I decided to do something a little different and eat around 400cals of solid food in one go. I had a 3min break/chat at this point which allowed my stomach a little more time to assimilate the food. I was tentative for the following mile but could already feel the extra calories having a positive effect, and this is something I will have to consider for future races over 50 miles. Sometimes a full stomach is not a bad thing.
Checkpoint 3 – 28miles – 3hr54min (2012 – 4hr13)
The next ten miles of the race passed through Stoke Gifford, Patchway and Easter Compton. A good mixture of more fields and hills, as well as road running through residential areas and across on a couple of bridges over the M5. The increase in nutrition (I was now eating and drinking to feel rather than sticking to a pre-race strategy) had certainly improved well-being. I was really enjoying my race once again and was able to bring my pace right back up to 6:30/M on the flat, comparable to the beginning of the race. I remember around the 32mile mark in the 2012 race having a bad patch and struggling to keep running. This time I felt great and although very stiff was able to keep the legs ticking over nicely. On the approach to Henbury at 38 miles I had a problem with the working watch and had to fish out the map. Fortunately my bearings were still in check and I made it to CP4 at the Blaise Inn.
Checkpoint 4 – 38.5miles – 5hr27min (2012 – 5hr55)
I was really pleased to be almost half an hour up on last years time and knew I would both break the record and get under 6hr45min. But could I crack 6hr30min? After a 2min break (I wasn’t depriving myself of that!) I had just over an hour to complete circa 8 miles. On the flat it wouldn’t be a problem, but this final section was quite demanding, with a sharp climb in the first mile up through Limekiln Wood before dropping down to the Shirehampton Road and the long gradual climb through Sea Mills Estate. This was a great little challenge, a time-trial within a race if you like.
So, after leaving CP4 I headed into the local park and immediately got lost in Limekiln Wood! Not a lot of time lost but it meant doubling back and taking a sharp climb to get on the correct route. A nice one mile stretch along a mini escarpment followed before dropping down alongside the Shirehampton Golf Course. I felt a little awkward (literally) running across the tee of one game but it was a right of way. I tried to find a way around but couldn’t. You could say they had their revenge because as soon as I crossed the road at the bottom of the hill I headed 200m into the wrong field and for a while was completely lost. I turned back on myself and found a well hidden footpath and thankfully I was on course again. The sub 6hr30 time was still possible and I worked hard for the following mile uphill through Sea Mills, but once again I came a cropper with my navigational skills. On the Clifton playing fields a number of football matches were taking place. The correct route ran across the fields/pitches. I decided to go around them (a golf match is one thing..) and promptly lost my bearings. You’d think with something as iconic as the Clifton Suspension Bridge (just one mile away) I’d have no problems getting directions. But I must have asked around five people before I was given a bearing and before long picked up the route on my Garmin watch. A little frustrating that I’d added about 500m and 3min to my time, but I could now just settle back and enjoy the rest of the route.
The views on the approach to and across the Clifton Suspension Bridge were awesome. A moment everyone appreciates in the race. Once into Leigh Woods I made the small diversion (introduced this year) to the Green Man Monument. Gave him a pat of the head as thanks, and then headed back up the hill and on to the final 1-2 miles to the finish at the Redwood Hotel. My brother Dean completed the race in 10hr30mins. You can see us both grabbing a hug towards the end of the video. I was really pleased with this race, probably my best Ultra performance to date. I just need to carry this through to the longer ultra races and trail attempts.
Finish – 47.5miles – 6hr35min (2012 – 7hr08)
Another great race by Ultra Running Ltd, and an event I will try and return to in future years. A perfect venue, great (testing) course, good organisation and friendly marshalling. I believe next year the event will be run backwards – clockwise. Video from Summit Fever: