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Compton 40 Race Report
By Debbie Gibbins
I have a great affection for the Compton 40 mile race as back in 2010 this was my first ultra race. Four years later Ernie and I were returning and I had hopes of bettering that debut performance. Back then I was a much faster runner but lacking in ultra experience. In 2014 I have a number of ultras behind me and whilst my speed has diminished my endurance is vastly superior. So my personal contest was on, would experience and endurance triumph over my 2010 speed and younger years?
The Compton 40 is no walk in the park. It is a trail race on sometimes difficult terrain that is either muddy or, if the weather has been dry, uneven and rutted. However, that is the least of my worries as the route involves an overall elevation gain of 5595 feet. In short a hilly course. Hills are not my forte.
On my last attempt Ernie ran the race with me and helped me around. This year it was every man and woman for him/herself! Ernie lined up with the front runners. In fear of being trampled by them I moved towards the mid field. My trade mark these days is slow but steady so I started as I meant to go on. The problem with the start of this race is that the 20 mile race and 40 mile race start together. It involves one lap around 2 fields and then through a narrow path into the woods. Squeezing over 250 runners into one narrow path results in the inevitable walking if you are mid field or near the back of the field. My first mile was very slow. Meanwhile Ernie (who ran the field lap with the man who finished 3rd)) had no such problems, he cruised through the first mile with no hold ups.
I settled into my running. In the second mile there is the first major hill. My plan was to run steadily up the hills until they became too steep and then walk the steepest sections. My walking pace has vastly improved in the last year so this has prevented my average pace from dropping too much. The race does have some nice flat and downhill sections which gave me some decent paced splits.
The first two checkpoints (to mile ten) passed quickly. Then the toughest section up to mile 15. The race description says “Follow path around house over stile straight on up STEEP HILL to stile” - they are not kidding. This is a “walk only” hill. The course is 2 laps so I tried not to think about how I would get up the hill the second time around. It was a great relief to reach the top and it was with some surprise that I actually passed a lady on this hill. She was not far behind, however, and we ran together for a while. She was doing the 20. I pressed on through the woods until I faced the next horror hill – route description “Up steep path and steps”. This section has wide steps to add to the joy of the incredibly steep climb. This was so soon after the last hill that I felt the need to pace myself. The girl I had passed ran steadily for almost the entire hill which impressed me at the time. However, my slower pace meant I had better recovery so once we were on the flatter road sections I pressed on again past her. The nicest part of the course for me came in mile 12-13. We reap the benefit of the climbing to run across the flat grassy top of a hill at one of the highest points of the race where the views of the rolling countryside are stunning. I remembered this well from my 2010 race and took the time to enjoy it again.
In the next 2 miles I caught up to 2 ladies running steadily and strongly. They pulled away from me on a long drag of a hill but I caught them up and passed them before Checkpoint 3 (15 miles). This surprised me as they looked pretty good runners and the older of the 2 ladies looked pretty experienced. She also looked like she was in my age category! However at this stage you have no idea where you are in the field as there is nothing to distinguish the 20 mile runners and as I started to so far back in field I had no idea who was in front either. I came through at 20 miles, the halfway stage in 3:36, and had a slightly longer stop at the Checkpoint to fill up my water container. This was around a 4 minute improvement on my 2010 time which was an encouraging first half of the race. I could not help thinking that Ernie was probably speculating on how far behind I was and whether I was closing in. He need not have worried, he passed the halfway stage in an amazing 3:05, more than 30 minutes ahead of me.
I set off on round two, up the narrow path to the woods totally on my own with no crowds this time to block my progress. It was soon pretty obvious that I would not have the same amount of company on this second lap. About ¾ of a mile from the checkpoint the course doubles back and I could hear the approach of the two ladies I had passed a few miles back on the other side of the hedge. I pressed on but about ¼ of a mile later there was a section crossing an uneven rutted field and I was aware of their approach. The older of the 2 ladies asked if I was okay to which I replied yes but that I was not very fond of the rugged terrain here. I moved over to let them pass. As I hit the road for a brief uphill section I watched them run the entire hill whilst I had to walk the steepest part and although I saw them up ahead for another couple of miles eventually they disappeared. I later discovered that the older of the 2 finished 3rd lady and was the winner of my age group prize.
It was shortly after this and yet another hill (where I sneaked a look behind me and saw 3 men behind me) that a guy caught me up. We started a conversion. He said he was relieved to see people walking up hills on an ultra and told me it was it first ultra. He introduced himself as Greg. His goal was to finish the race in good shape so we buddied up. He was stronger on hills but he found that I pushed on well on the flats and downhills which he felt helped him not to dawdle on these sections. He was a well travelled man, and had trekked in Nepal and Kathmandu where I had lived as a child. We exchanged life stories, we had plenty of time to do it and it kept me distracted from the nastier sections of the course. We passed a couple of men and we ran and chatted and later passed another man and a woman. As we hit the hill from hell he was a star trying to distract me by asking me which country I had enjoyed visiting/living in the most and I was just about able to get the words out between gasps for air!! The relief at reaching the top this time was far greater than the first time around. Sadly we still had the steep hill with the steps to negotiate. I swear someone had made the steps steeper and wider this time around. As I finally got to the third step from the top the step up seemed so high I wondered if anyone would notice if I got in my knees and crawled up on all fours, but I looked up to see Greg chipper at the top telling me I was nearly there and I decided to avoid the humiliation of crawling and struggled up to the top.
Things get a bit better from here onwards. There are still hills but the worst is over. I gradually picked up pace again. At 33 miles there was an unofficial water stop and I saw another lady ahead who I knew was in my age category. She is a far better short ultra distance runner than me so I was surprised to see her there. She left the water station ahead of me but as we set off up the hill from there and turned to corner onto a flatter section I passed her and stayed in front to the end of the race. Earlier in my conversion I told Greg my goal was to beat my 2010 time. We maintained a steady pace but there was one last sting in the tail as there is a drag of a steep hill around 36-37 miles. By this time I was aware a PB was a bit touch and go so I needed to pick up the pace wherever I could. Fortunately what goes up does come down and mile 38 was predominately down, a 9:38 mile for us which after 38 miles was much needed if unexpected. About half a mile later there was another water stop and we were told it was just 2 miles. I was expecting it to be around 1 ½ miles left at that stage and with a quick calculation of at worst 12 minute miles it was really going to be close. My 2010 time was 7:49 if there were 2 miles left I could possibly scrape in under that time, I would be around 7:44. There was some more climbing at mile 39 which gave me a 12:05 mile. At this point Greg told me a few of his friends were meeting him at the finish to take photos and although he was clearly a very modest man he said he felt obliged to put in a final “posy sprint” at the finish so he hoped I would not mind if he finished just ahead. No problem for me, he had been a far superior runner on the hills and could easily have pushed ahead there. Unlucky for Greg though his mates decided to come out about ½ from the end of the course and as we turned at the end of a road there they were and we were running side by side, steady pace. He kindly said to his friends “you should take a photo of this lady she has been amazing”. To which his mate responded “yes - she’s overtaking you!!” I sympathised with him not having the photographic evidence of the sprint finish and pressed on as fast as we could. Luckily for me and my PB my last mile was 10:11 and although Greg did go for a mini sprint finish on the field up to the line I came in a few seconds behind him in 7:41:46, an 8 minute PB on what I might add was a harder course than 2010 as that year there were 2 different laps, the second being much easier than the first which meant I only had to do the hills from hell once that year not twice as I had done this year!!
As I crossed the line Ernie was there waiting. He had showered, watched the prize giving and still had time to stand around waiting for my arrival some 48 minutes after his 6:53 finish time. (Secretly I was just grateful I was not a whole hour behind him!).
I was pleased with my time, my PB, my 6th place and finishing 2nd in my age group.
Lesson learned from this race – yes endurance and experience can triumph over speed, but if I want to move into a prize winning position my base speed probably needs to be improved. However, I am encouraged that advancing years have not prevented me from improving on ultra times even if my days of breaking PB’s at other shorter distances may now be past me.