My Rack Raid Recce

Skenfrith Castle - where it all begins
Skenfrith Castle – where it all begins

My hiking and running hobbies generally co-exist side by side with little overlap.

Some days I run, others I hike.

I run alone, at parkrun or with the inspirational Lliswerry Runners; I hike with Harri. The few occasions I’ve attempted to run with Harri haven’t gone well, for obvious reasons (he’s fast, I’m not).

Yesterday my two worlds collided, but for an important reason.

The Rack Raid is fast approaching and with my own 6.93 mile stage confirmed as Skenfrith Castle (alongside the River Monnow) to White Castle (on top of a hill) and several castle walks for our first e-publication left to complete, I felt a little reconnaissance wouldn’t go amiss.

 

My hilltop destination, White Castle
My hilltop destination, White Castle

First, perhaps I should explain what the Rack Raid is, and secondly, how I’ve managed to commit myself to an undulating run of nearly seven miles that begins at 8.06am in a location 37 miles from my home.

The Rack Raid is the biggest event in Fairwater Cwmbran Runners’ calendar. It involves over 100 miles of racing split into 13 stages of varying distances. The race begins at Grosmont Castle at around 7.30am and finishes at the Castell-Y-Bwchpub (Henllys) at around 7:00pm.

The Rack Raid was organised to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Fairwater Runners in 2007 and as an alternative event for those who were unable to gain entry to the larger Castles Relay event.

I should emphasize that I didn’t actually volunteer to run my stage – or any stage.  In fact, I spent weeks avoiding the eyes of anyone involved in putting together Lliswerry’s three teams, lest they might think I was the slightest bit interested in competing.

I felt I was reasonably safe from Team A selection. This elite group of athletes will have no trouble beating the nine minute mile cut-off time stipulated and are in with a good chance of winning (they finished in fourth place last year).

Team B (affectionately known as Team Carthorse) briefly courted my favours but ultimately seemed in no rush to sign me up.

I breathed a sigh of relief and started making plans that involved being at the finishing line, cheering people up that final hill, sipping half a cider.

Then came the Facebook message (hint: never sign up for Facebook if you want to avoid doing something… anything!).  As a result of several injuries, Team C (the Fillies) was in desperate need of additional runners.

 

This undulating lane just goes on and one
This undulating lane just goes on and one

Which is why I now find myself facing a very hilly early morning run across undulating Monmouthshire countryside with a time-bomb ticking (my stage has a cut-off time of 62 minutes).

I think it’s natural to feel apprehensive about such things, especially if the 6.73 miles in question are completely unknown territory. Far better to know the terrain, recognise a few landmarks, understand the lie of the land.

So yesterday, needing to make some progress with our castle walks project, but also wanting to check out my stage of the Rack Raid, we decided to complete two walks, one from White Castle and the other from Skenfrith (both locations are quite stunning).

The drive between the castles is the route I have to run tomorrow. At first, my confidence soared. The ‘sting in the tail’ hill that a fellow club member warned me about didn’t look too bad at all, certainly nothing like the final horrendous climb up the lane from Harri’s parents house to the Castell y Bwch that the final stage runners face.

As Harri drove, I noted every landmark – in particular, a cider farm, tearoom and vineyard – and every shift in direction (horizontal not north-south).  A little bit up, a little bit down; a steep incline, a gentle downhill slope.  The ups and downs seemed reasonably balanced, I felt.

 

And if I run out of energy... just look that price!
And if I run out of energy… just look that price!

Harri disagreed. Skenfrith, he pointed out, was located next to a river and was therefore at a much lower altitude than White Castle. Climbing was inevitable; it was just a matter of how steep and at what stage in the race.

We soon found out. It seems like the toughest bit of this section is right at the beginning, the point where your brain is still fuzzy, your legs rebelling and your heart thumping.

The best bit of running advice I was ever given is never expect the first ten minutes of any run to be anything other than painful.  It’s so true. No-one enjoys those first few minutes even when the road ahead is as flat as a pancake. Imagine how painful they’re going to be when you’re striding out uphill! My new-found confidence plummeted as the reality of Sunday’s task sank in.

Well it’s too late to back out now.  So instead I’m going to take a philosophical view.

 

Nearly there. The final bend before the single lane to White Castle
Nearly there. The final bend before the single lane to White Castle

Twenty-four hours before I turn 52 I will be doing my first-ever relay race. I won’t be breaking any records but I’ll be out there in the early morning sunshine,  running alongside seasoned athletes (many now friends)  and experienced marathon runners through some of the most beautiful scenery that Wales has to offer. The atmosphere will be fantastic, the camaraderie amazing. It won’t matter if I’m last to reach White Castle because it’s the taking part that counts, the being part of a team.

I’m almost looking forward to it…

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