The Otmoor Challenge

Date: Jun 3, 2017 14:00:00

The Otmoor Challenge is a multi-terrain race over a half-marathon distance (my GPS watch came up a little short so I’ll add ‘approximate’ to that!) and forms part of a village fete at Horton-cum-Studley, near Oxford. It’s largely flat, with just one hill to climb (onto Otmoor itself) near the end. I have taken part in this before, but not for many years.

This would be the third of five planned half-marathons over the space of five weeks. Coupled with four 10k races, plus one or two of other distances, my race calendar through May / June was rather busy (this weekend would be the first of two ‘double-headers’ I had lined up). Unfortunately I had succeeded in pulling an Achilles during the first of these ½ marathons and, rather than sacrifice the events I have entered, chose to ‘manage’ the injury.

This did involve a few days’ rest (and consequently missing out of the first of the 10k races I had planned – plus walking, rather than running, the recce for the Cotswold Way Relay leg I was due to take part in) and supposedly running the entered races at a slower pace than I would normally hope to. I had achieved a sub-two-hour time at the ‘offending’ ½ marathon and managed to repeat this feat two weeks later whilst ‘supposedly’ managing a reduced pace.

Back to the race in question. Traffic at both ends of the outward journey had left me with just enough time to collect my number and change before we were called to the (2pm) start. Not ideal preparation but it was a warm day and I would be starting slowly as a form of ‘managing’ the Achilles. A decent sized crowd set off from the field in which the fete was being held and turned right onto the road.

We soon transferred to a section of track which quickly narrowed to a path through a field. Pretty much in single file – two-abreast at a squeeze – this ensured that my pace would remain sedate for the first couple of miles. Once we left the path / track and back onto road there was room for me to start making a bit of progress.

I had chosen to wear my off-road shoes despite the dry conditions. I would have managed this in road shoes but I wanted to see how I coped with my ’sod-flops’ with a recovering tendon. The shoes are great for managing most terrain (including road!) when one is feeling quite nimble. That was not me on this specific afternoon.

We had passed the three-mile mark and I was struggling to find a rhythm, in which I would simply clock the miles off ahead of what I’d term the business end (especially in the knowledge that we had that hill to tackle at said business end!). We covered a very long section of roads and I somehow managed to miss the four- and five-mile markers. I was quite pleasantly surprised to see a six on the next sign I saw; almost half-way and despite not having settled myself, was optimistic that I would manage the second half OK.

We left the road, followed a short section of track and turned onto a rough path that skirted a field before crossing a couple of streams via footbridges with stiles at either end. I was still struggling to find my stride so I played a game of follow-the-footsteps-of-the-runner-in-front. This simply involved stepping into the spot that the runner ahead had vacated with each feet / stride. In this fashion I passed seven miles before we joined a track, then road, again.

This was a much shorter road section but I used the opportunity to pass the runner I’d been following, plus one or two others, before we went onto another rough path that would skirt a very large field. Again, I tried to establish a rhythm, again failing. For short stretches I felt I was running OK, at other times it felt like a task simply to keep the legs turning over. For a good two-and-a-half miles I followed this path switching between OK and awful in terms of how my running felt.

At the ten mile mark we rejoined a road, turning right onto it and preparing for the inevitable ascent. I was hoping that the change of surface would kick-start me into finding a stride but it appeared that my legs had already cried enough. I started the incline towards Otmoor at what felt like a shuffle, using the runner immediately ahead of me to focus on keeping going.

The climb gradually steepened but I found that I was managing to close down the runner ahead. As we approached what would be the final water station, I drew alongside. That, however, was short-lived as I stopped to grab a couple of gulps of water and the gap opened again as a result. The next 200 metres or so, to the top of the climb, were the steepest and I was quite relieved to see the summit.

That was little respite. Over a short flat section I was still unable to settle into a stride and was distinctly uncomfortable over the long descent off the moor and into a wooded section. I would have described it as tip-toeing down but it was more akin to cows being unloaded from a trailer, all bump-and-thump.

We were inside the last two miles and I was now going backwards. The path through the wood ended on a track which would take us back to the road leading to the village fete, and finish. The final mile, on the road, was a long straight section; you could see the runners in the distance – and I was just wishing myself to be there, knowing that I had to endure several more minutes.

I was willing myself to push on but was being far from successful. I was managing the odd smile and thumbs-up to supporters, a stark contract to what I was feeling! One-paced, I continued to the entrance to the fete and the finish line, glad that it was finally over. Stopping my watch, I did manage an internal smile, observing that I had again managed to compete the distance in under two hours.

Occasionally one might have a day where one just doesn’t feel ‘right’ but cannot place a finger on why. This race was very much that; I just did not manage to settle into it at all. It’s a bit of a shame, as this is probably an ideal ‘half’ in which to introduce someone to multi-terrain: largely flat – one good climb just as an example! – a generous proportion of road sections and runners sufficiently large in numbers so one should never be totally isolated.

Hopefully I’ll be feeling more ‘right’ next year. More immediately though, I need to wake up ‘fresh’ for the second portion of this weekend’s double-header: all road and ‘just’ 10k. Please be happy in the morning, legs.

Distance: 13.1m
Reviewer: Phil Jeyes
Venue: Horton-cum-Studley, near Oxford