The Grantham Cup is a race I’d been looking forward to for a while; 3 years in fact. Having run and loved this little gem of a race in 2014, I’d found myself missing it for the following two years, thanks to being away at warm-weather training camps. This year, I made sure it was in my diary and paid for well in advance, as I wanted to see how much I could improve on my time. With everything that I’ve been coaching myself, I wanted to take 10 minutes off my previous time.
A race of roughly 10K, this local club-organised event is part of the international Belton Horse Trials, hence the name, and thus has almost the feel of a Lakeland sports/gala fell race. It’s very low key, although well-organised, and takes place in the grounds and surrounding land of Belton House, a stunning National Trust property. The course is tough; this is not a PB race, that’s for sure! Although the start and finish are on a vaguely defined track, and a mile or so in the middle is run on rough woodland paths, the rest of the route is on rough grass, field edges and includes two very steep ascents and descents that put even the best of fell shoes to the test.
With less than 250 runners, picking up my race number was quick and easy, and having warmed-up, I was soon in position at the start. This is where the only real downside of the race was for me: I am really not keen on dogs, and since I’d last run the race, the organisers had successfully promoted it to Canicross runners, meaning that one half of the start area was full of excited, barking dogs. This only added to my pre-race nerves, and I was pleased when we were finally sent on our way and the barking subsided.
My race plan was fairly simple; don’t go off too hard, and put into practice everything I’ve been working on with regards to uphill and downhill technique. I set off at what felt like a comfortable, maintainable pace, and on glancing at my Garmin after half or mile or so saw that despite running uphill, I was maintaining a pace faster than I had thought I would be able to. So far, so good. I kept this up for the first two miles until the first of the really steep climbs began. Here, I put my ‘hands-on-legs’ fell-walking technique into action, and managed to overtake a few people as I worked my way to the top. The route then led us into the woods, where a rough path led gently uphill for a while before leading us to the first very steep descent. Running down steep hills on rough ground has always been one of my weaknesses, but I have been working hard at improving my skills and confidence, and have been lucky to coach alongside a top downhill fellrunner whose tips and advice have helped me no end. As I approached the descent, my first thought was of Eddie and what he would do, and this helped me go for it! OK, I didn’t quite manage his speed but I have never overtaken so many runners on a downhill in my life! I felt confident in both my legs and the grip on my shoes, and it showed. I was still feeling rather pleased with myself when the next steep uphill was in front of me. Again, I managed to pass people on the way up by walking, and before I knew it, I was onto the second steep descent, arms flailing as I tried to pick up even more speed. How pleased was I!
On paper, this race goes up from the start to the top of a ridge and back down again; in practice, once runners are off the ridge there are still several undulations to come, tough because of the terrain underfoot and the constant changing of pace and technique. These were what I had found hardest of all 3 years ago, and so I was hoping that I still had enough in the tank to maintain my pace, if not increase it. Aside from an unplanned stop to allow a police car to pass at the only road crossing (how unlucky was that!), the undulations of the last couple of miles did not cause my pace to slow at all. As I ran the last half mile down to the finish, I knew that I had absolutely smashed my goal of improving by 10 minutes, and as I crossed the line, I could see I had improved by over 18 minutes! Job done!
With the race memento of a bottle of ‘Trail Ale’ in hand, as well as a few other edible goodies, it was time to reflect in the sunshine on a race that had gone not only exactly to plan, but better, and give myself a pat on the back!