Woodwose: Anybody who conquers the 45 mile Green Man Challenge around the Community Forest Path is termed a Woodwose, from the Old English wuduwāsa or wood-being, regardless of gender. Woodwose is the proper name for the wild men and wild women that haunted the imaginary forests of medieval Europe and is entirely appropriate for anyone mad enough to conquer the Community Forest Path at the Green Man Ultra.
I had to do this. That is what kept I telling myself at the start line of the 45 mile, muddy, hilly loop of Bristol. I had to do this. And I had been here before. Twice in fact.
Back in 2018 I was booked on this race, the Winter Green Man Ultra. 45 miler. Self Nav. It was a week after Transgrancanaria and I was reaching too high. Icarus, and I was all feathers and a long drop. Knowing I would be broken from TGC I tried to limit the damage to my ageing body by dropping to the 30 miler, the “Green Boy” as it is known. But with a day’s delay at TGC due to lightning storms in the mountains I decide to drop out completely. But then something happened that I did not expect – it snowed. The race was postponed, and rescheduled in September. And then, despite it being a week after Loch Ness Marathon, I ran the Green Boy. Sure I got lost 3 times, got very intimate with OS Maps, but I did it, under the time target I set myself, and I loved it.
I loved it so much I booked myself on the Green Boy again in 2019. This time it would be the full Winter experience. It would not be on the hard ground baked by the summer, with an extra 2 hours of sunlight. I would be finishing in the dark, in the rain, covered in mud. But I had a target. I wanted to better my time, I wanted to handle the route better, not get lost. And that I did, despite finishing in the rain, with headtorch on, I finished over half an hour faster than 2018. Helped a group too, who would have been completely lost if I hadn’t called to them when I did. Demons well and truly faced, comfort zone left. Job done.
And to this year, a year where I am trying to spend as much time as possible out of my comfort zone to go for PBs, to better my times, to feel stronger. I had originally booked myself on the Green Boy for the third time. But this new zest for a challenge pushed me to up it to the full Green Man experience. 45 miles of fun and games.
I did worry. I worried I would get lost. For some reason I thought this was the reverse of the course I ran twice before and somewhat knew. But then at 5am one morning in January I woke realising that I had only run the course anti-clockwise, and therefore from 15 miles onward it would be the route I know well, that of the Green Boy from Keynsham to Bristol. I just needed to navigate the first third of the race, and that would be the third of the race with a LOT more people, as well as the Time Lord pacers. As soon as I hit the pub at mile 15, I knew exactly where to go. The only difference would be the extra 15 miles beforehand, and the additional 3 hours to do it in.
Having a plan worked well last time. That was at a KM by KM basis, as well as not getting lost, staying at the CPs for less time, and generally running more than walking. I knew that I have completed the last 2/3rds of the race in over an hour under the time limit twice before. If I could complete the first 15 miles in 3 hours or under I should be golden. But I guess we will see.
I need dis
I needed this. It had been 5 months since my last marathon, at the time the longest I had gone without running one since the gap between my first (Berlin September 2015) and second (Manchester April 2016). Since then with two 12 in 12 years and 14 last year, I had not had such a barren spell between 100MC races. And this has been my own fault. I dropped out of, or dropped down distances on, the last 3 maras or above of 2019, and 2020 had been a shoddy mix of halves and gym work.
I sought inspiration in Fiona Oakes and her documentary. Although not the intended purpose, I felt like I had been slacking, have shirked the chances I have been given. After GMU45, I was determined to go for a 12 in 12 again, even if it meant some SVN/Saturn Running/Phoenix lap races. Or that was what I told myself at the time. After COVID-19 hit the world all that changed and, at the time of writing I am still on 45 marathons and Chicago is still my last marathon. Like everyone else my 2020 race calendar was put away with the toasted sandwich maker, Encyclopedia Britannica, and the Friends VHS boxed set and there is no date for it to return. I am down 7 marathons, and those from August onward that are still on the calendar are remote at best. But, I digress…
What Happened at GMU?
After getting through the postponed GMU30 in 2018, running the route in road shoes, getting a little lost, and still somehow getting in an hour under my planned finish time I was confident going into the Winter Green Boy in March of 2019. Again I wore road shoes for a race that was a mixed bag of farmland and residential roads and, knowing the way and adding OS Maps to my arsenal, I was a further half an hour better than before. Both races completed in roads, improvements year on year, I made a big mistake. I didn’t listen to Han.
I got cocky and I shouldn’t have.
The hotel, newly refurbished in 2019, gave me a huge room with four poster bed and welcome basket including cereal, After Eights and a mini bottle of wine. This year it was shoddy. After putting the effort in when they reopened/opened they had now given up. The room was basic. A “no food in the room” rule was added to ruin things further, forcing me to eat alone in town, and the sound proofing was minimal. I was exhausted by the time I woke the next day to head to the start.
The 30 starts at a pub a train ride away from Bristol, the 45 starts at the finish and I was there early, to drop off my bag and chill. My kit was well used and would do the trick. Road shoes again, for the third running I would be in Nike Flex or Free, but the bag felt heavy. Rather than my normal Scott hydration pack I panicked and went for a Salomon backpack that I would ordinarily use for multiday races and anything up to 100K. I had packed too much in it. And I felt weighed down before I’d even had the pre-race briefing.
There were a few people I knew around. I did consider saying hi to Kirstie et al, but in the end I just took my pre race photos and shuffled my way around waiting for the fun and games to begin.
I felt ill at ease from the start, but I always do. Maranoia takes hold in the pens of races the world over (or it does for me) and I looked around at the runners and the walkers all ready to go, I spied the Time Lords and met up with the young guy I’d spoken to on the way in 2019 who was running his first ultra at the time, skipping marathons completely, and had now upped his game to the 45. It would suck at the start, and then, as per, I would get into my rhythm some time in the first hour and then it would be grand.
But it would not be grand. It would not be grand at all. The race started with an air horn, and we ran across the playing fields of the school that would act as race HQ. My bag was heavy, my legs heavier but that, again, was the norm. We ran a loop and were out and into the grounds of Ashton Court, and this is where the wheels (or rather my left shoe) came off.
It was a lot muddier than expected and I wear my running shoes loose on ultras to allow my feet to swell over the day. It had worked for the prior 8 years of running and 250 races but here not so much. As I was about to get into my stride I stepped into the mire and a shoeless foot emerged covered in wet mud. I was already a couple of strides away and now had to dodge runners to go and dig for my shoe like a lyrca wearing member of TimeTeam.
Upon emptying it of muddy water I retied it and now had to catch up with the crowd. The last Time Lord was run/walking his way along, talking to two other runners who would probably spend a lot of time with him over the course of the next 11 hours. He looked back and I waved to him as I caught up and surged ahead onto undulating paths and on the way out of the grounds and across a road.
I stopped to readjust my bag and retie my shoes and called to him that I would catch up but, again, I misjudged EVERYTHING.
I ran into the woods once ready and hit a downhill path that was covered in four inches of slimy clay like orange mud. Either side brambles. My road shoes had no chance. I hit the first downhill and…
I slowed to steady myself, but even standing still was difficult and I overbalanced with my heavier pack and ended up on my arse. I can do this, I told myself, even though I knew I was lying, and I stood up and tried to walk down on the brambles. But they were too knotted and I got tangled. I tried the path again.
But again I slipped and slid, this time sliding down the hill on my backside after a heavy fall on my hip. I grabbed at the brambles to slow myself and ended up cut up to the point of having to dig my first aid kit out of my now muddy as hell backpack and tape myself.
It was during this moment that I knew I needed to gird my loins. And trust me, they needed girding. So I calmed, and started to run. It was messy. It was Bambi on Ice but I knew I would catch up with the others as soon as the mud was left behind and I would be on country lanes and concrete paths able to pick up the pace.
Fifty yards down the path, not even, my hip was so painful I was limping. It threw my whole left side out and I was moving like an extra on The Walking Dead. I tried to walk it off, waving to a local dog walker and wincing my way out of sight, but it wasn’t happening. The imbalance in the hips caused my knee to be thrown out and it was starting to hurt, and my ankle too, on the muddy/lost shoe side. I sat down and tried to stretch anything I could but knew my day was over.
What an absolute clusterfuck of a disaster.
This was worse than my other DNFs. At Comrades I went into it after running 6 marathons, including 2 in 8 days and tore my knee, ending up in a medical bus for 6 hours. At Ultraks we just got timed out trying to run an ultra with more elevation than the 3 peaks in one sitting. At the Shakespeare Raceway marathon I projectile vomited Tailwind. Here, I fucked up. My bag was wrong, it was too heavy. My fault. I was cocky, knowing I’d run virtually all my trail races in the last 2 years in road shoes. It didn’t work here. My luck had run out. When I finally got up and something in my hip made a cracking noise that I could hear over my music, I called the RD and said I was done.
He wanted to know if I needed to be picked up and I said no, I would be fine. I would make my way back to the school slowly. It was just over two miles away, and I found a route that took me along paths. Sure, when I got there there would be no one, and my bag was in a locked room. And sure, as I limped my way down the country lanes past locals and my muddy clothes slowly dried and the bramble cuts scabbed over I would be fine.
There was a local race going on in Ashton Manor grounds and I tried to not make eye contact with the runners as they went by.
When I spoke to him the RD said I could run the Summer Green Man after I said I was very disappointed, and, now we are in May, I have signed up for the GMU next March, but I will be running the 30 again because I know the way, and I will be running it in trail shoes. We learn lessons from our successes and failures and, hopefully, I will learn from this and mostly I will listen to Han…
NEXT UP: FUCK KNOWS