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Saffron Trail Ultra (70 Miles)

By Debbie Gibbins

Saffron Trophy
It was about a week after the South Downs Way that I discovered the Saffron Trail 70 mile Ultra. My feet still hurt and the blisters were still recovering and having failed to finish the SDW I did not particularly want to enter another ultra just 4 weeks after the SDW if I did not think I could finish the race.  Yet it was tempting.  The start was just 1 miles from my house and the early part of the race was around areas of Essex I had run before and the route passed literally in front of my place of work!  If ever a race was right up my street – literally - this was it.  I decided to leave it a week then try and run to see how I felt.  The run went okay 9:30 minute miles seemed pretty comfortable so I took the plunge and entered.  However it was soon apparent that navigation on this race would be challenging to say the least.  Time was short but Ernie and I went and recce’d the route through Hockley Woods to Battlesbridge two weeks prior to the race. There were hidden pathways in numerous places, a moments loss of concentration could mean you would be horribly lost.  The following day I ran the route backwards from my office in Eastwood to just before the start so I was pretty confident of my nav up to Battlesbridge (17.5 miles). A week before the race Ernie and I went to Alston, Cumbria to recce part of the Spine Race route that Ernie will be running next January along the Pennine Way. We planned to do around 36 miles over two days.  I did not think this would affect my race, after all we would be walking (30 minute mile pace) how hard could that be?  However after about our second day of walking the brutal Pennine Way my feet were complaining bitterly.  I staggered along the last 3 miles in pain trying to avoid the stony uneven ground where possible. Not the best way to start a 70 mile ultra!  I decided not to run another step until the race to try to rest my aching feet. 
Saffron Start
At the start with Kate and Ernie
As the start was at 6pm on Southend seafront this meant I could have a lie in until 10am and eat a meal before the start which was a plus for me, I would be running this race without feeling sleepy or hungry.  As I was only 5 minutes drive from the start I could leave 20 minutes before to race briefing time and still have time to kill at the start.  I spent time chatting to a running buddy Mark Williams who has crewed for me in an ultra before and was crewing for a friend in this race.  As the starting horn sounded I could not believe the pace virtually the entire field was running. I had intended to run at around 12 minute miles, maybe 10 minute pace if I got a bit carried away on the easier terrain at the start.  I ran the first mile in 9:33 and I was virtually at the back of the field, just two other runners were behind me.  Mark joined me for a short while as he was running back to his car in Leigh-on-Sea and I commented on the speed of the runners.  He said not to worry and that my ultra experience of race pacing would show in the later stages.  I ran up the steps to Marine Parade in Leigh and was joined by another runner Tre.  We introduced ourselves and he told me that he had entered the race last minute and that he was an American who was in the UK for a few months working over here.  He had ultra experience having run 100 mile races and he too knew the value of keeping the pace steady.  At around 2 miles into the race we were joined by another runner Graham who also commented that he could not believe how fast everyone was running and said the only people behind him were the sweepers.  The three of us started to run together.  As we went up the first hill in Hadleigh Country Park I could see some other runners up ahead.  They had paused to check their map at the two paths to Hadleigh castle.  I told them it was the outer path they needed, they thanked me as I ran on past them.  At this point Graham asked me if I knew the route.  I confessed the extent of my knowledge of the route, warning him that after about 7 miles beyond Battlesbridge I about as much clue as anyone else.  He said he intended to stick with me. Tre commented that he had no idea of the route and intended to stick with me too, if he could keep up.  I assured him I would slow later. I ran the first leg with confidence.  At one point Tre and Graham were running in front of me and I had to call them back as they started to run along the wrong track, failing to spot the obscured path to the woods.  Tre said that he had no intention of leaving me or he would be “screwed”! I assured my buddies that I would be delighted to help them with the navigation if I could have their company through the night, particularly as the route would take us through the town centre of Chelmsford late at night. 

As I came into Checkpoint 1 at Hockley Woods (10.9 miles) I was 3 minutes quicker than my planned pace.  The evening was incredibly humid and we all commented on how much we were sweating.  It began to get so oppressive we were almost praying for the rain to arrive.  Shortly after leaving CP1 it obliged and the mandatory waterproof jacket came into use.  I was pretty wet after I arrived at CP2 at Battlesbridge (17.5 miles).  I was greeted by my friend Kate Hayden who was marshalling there who told me I was 1
st lady.  I was not sure I believed her but she assured me I was.  I was not hanging around, I needed to get going to try to keep that position.  It was getting dark now so navigating was going to get tricky.  There were some very difficult hidden paths on this section and we really had to keep our wits about us.  I had another few miles that I had recce’d but after that it would be all new territory.  We were joined by Baz who had been having a bad time with cramp and sickness so he decided to stick with us.  He was from Newport, north Essex and had recce’d most of the route.  His input was invaluable although we made a wrong turn at one point and found ourselves on the wrong side of a hedge with no way across a ditch between so we had to re-trace our steps.  I had the route plotted on my garmin but where this falls down is where there are parallel tracks as it shows the correct direction although I might be the wrong side of a hedge or tree line.  A little time was lost but we picked it up pretty quickly.  I knew then I did not want to lose my buddies as the thought of getting lost alone on this very difficult and isolated route was not very appealing.  Ernie had arranged to meet me at the Cricketers Pub in Danbury.  He became an unscheduled checkpoint for all four of us, providing water for everyone, food and salt capsules.   We were about 2 miles from CP3 (28.2 miles) so we knew we would now be able to get through there quickly.  Just before the CP we ran into 2 other runners reading the route directions having been lost numerous times on the leg.  They complained that the leg had taken them well over 2 hours as they kept getting lost.  By this time we had become quite a good team, Baz with his route knowledge, Graham now getting pretty good with the route descriptions and me with my garmin between us we generally managed to find the route even if we made the odd mistake we quickly re-traced our steps. 

As we came into the CP there were several runners there including three runners from Rochford Running Club.  One of them had lost a contact lens and had fallen several times because he could not see so he was dropping out here.  Another of them also dropped as he could not face another 12 hours on this difficult route.  This left Darren who decided to join us.  This leg involved passing Chelmsford City centre.  Baz was struggling and mostly walking now.  The rest of us pressed on. Graham had arranged to meet his wife here to change socks.  He suggested that we go on and he would catch us up at CP4.  Tre decided to stay with him and I carried on with Darren.  It was not the nicest of places to be with drunken youngsters coming out of the pubs and clubs so I was very grateful for Darren’s company.  We had a little trouble with the route through the park crossing a bridge we thought was the right one but my garmin said otherwise so we re-traced our steps and found another runner Mark more than a little disgruntled as he told us he had been wandering around Chelmsford town centre lost for 2 hours being subjected to abuse by the drunken youths on the streets and ready to ring a taxi to take him home to Ongar.  We buddied up and we were quickly back on course so Mark decided to stick with us.  It was during my run with Darren that he told me about his encounter with a home owner on a rural part of the route who appeared with a shotgun in his hand swearing profusely about the runners passing his house with headtorches.  Luckily for me we had taken the alternative Saffron Way path around the back of the houses otherwise we may have suffered the same fate. Maybe a suggestion for Lindley, the race director, for next year’s event is to make a bullet-proof vest mandatory race kit!  It was on this leg that Darren and I passed a car wash that obviously felt a vicious guard dog was essential for their security.  The route passed on a path next to the boundary of the car wash and I could hear the dog close to me on the opposite side of the fence.  We certainly picked up the pace there.  We found ourselves ploughing through a field with no apparent track when we spotted Graham and Tre again using a track on the right hand side of the field.  We joined them on the better track and came into a point just before CP4 (37.1 miles) all together again to find a marshal in a car telling us the checkpoint had been moved because an annoyed farm owner was unhappy about its location.  A re-route was necessary and a bit of back-tracking from the re-routed CP to get on course again.  The five of us ran together for some time but Darren and I were feeling a little stronger and able to run more than the others so we pushed on.  It was daylight now and that always helps to get the pace going again.  We passed 2 more runners trying to figure out the correct route on a field with no clear path.  Darren and I came into CP 5 at Little Baddow (47.7 miles) together and he asked what position we were in.  We were told we were in joint 6
th and I was 1st lady.  I was amazed.  We left asking what could possibly have happened to all the other runners.  Where they out there wandering around remote parts of Essex completely lost? Or worse victims of the armed home-owner or savage guard dogs?!  Suddenly we felt pressure to keep our position.  That is a sure guarantee we would get lost again.  We ran across a bridge across the A12 and then took the path we believed was correct but my garmin kept telling me it was incorrect.  We backtracked then tried again.  It was still wrong.  We wandered up and down a bit then eventually went back to the bridge to try again.  Then the 2 runners we had passed appeared and ran past us.  We ran down the track again and I then spotted the Saffron Trail marker to our right and we were back on course.  We lost a good 15-20 minutes here.  Shortly after Tre caught up with us and then almost immediately Baz appeared flying along and we said to him he must be feeling a lot better now and indeed he was.  He ran on past at a fair lick.  A little while after Graham and Mark were back with us again reminding us about the tortoise and the hare.  Graham said that Baz was concerned we were close to cut offs.  I confirmed that we were getting a bit close now and we were running the most awful terrain muddy, full of nettles and thistles up a drag of a hill.  It was becoming a very slow pace and my feet were killing me.  Blisters were developing and I was trying to keep a focus on pushing on. 

Ernie and Kate were at the next CP (CP6 56.7 miles) so as I came in I stopped to get my blisters treated and change my socks and shoes to heavily cushioned Hokas.  I knew that to have any chance of finishing I needed to do whatever I could to ease the pain in my feet as the ibuprofen I had taken was not enough to help me deal with the pain.  I knew meeting the cut off times would be hard but I would push on.  As I had stopped here all the others went on ahead except Darren.  He said that he would help me get through and win that 1
st lady position and did not want to leave me.  We left together, initially I was hobbling along as the pain from my recently lanced blister was quite severe but gradually it eased and where there were flats and downhills Darren managed to get me running again.  We had another slightly wrong turn on this leg as my garmin was telling me to run straight along a track but Darren believed we were in a different spot so we took a left looking for a route into woods that were actually about mile further along.  We probably lost 5-10 minutes here and ran into CP 7 (65.1 miles) and were out of there in 30 seconds as we were now really tight on time.  We had 1 hours to finish the last 4.9 miles.  The marshals felt it was plenty of time and we could make it walking but I knew my walking pace was too slow we would have to run where we could.

Unfortunately we were greeted by hills for the first mile and the pace was slow.  Finally there was a downhill section but Darren felt the pace was too slow and we would not make it.  He had been so kind to me I could not let him be timed out.  I told him to run on.  However it was just a short while later that I caught up again as he had stopped unsure of the route.  I directed him along the field ahead and assured him it was correct. From there although he was ahead he was still in my sights.  As we hit the road I saw a sign saying Saffron Walden 2 miles. 
Saffron with Kate
Running with into Saffron Walden with Kate
Shortly after I saw Ernie and Kate approaching.  They told me I was going to finish as they had just run/walked the distance from the finish in 20 minutes and I had 40 minutes to do it.  I walked the hill then after passing through a grassy track I ran on the road until the uphill section.  I brisk walked uphill then as I turned through the gates and started my run to the finish.  As I ran into the finish at the Saffron Walden Fire Station I was greeted by applause from the marshals and my running buddies and I was finally able to thank Darren for all he did to help me. 
Saffron Finish photo
Running into the finish of the Saffron Ultra
Lindley presented me with my 1st lady trophy and I felt so proud and just a little emotional.  My first ever 1st place in any race of any distance and I felt I had really earned this trophy as this was an incredibly tough race. 
Saffron Post finish
Enjoying a rest after the finish