Bushy, crewing and an Epping ultra

What a weekend. It involved some running, some supporting runners and a bit more running.

Saturday dawned wet and windy. 300 runners were assembling in Wendover ready for a 43 mile run into London. The fields were boggy, the paths were waterlogged and it was cold. Well, what do you expect on January 8th.

These hardcore runners set off while I was driving from east to west London. My first stop was Bushy Park. This, as many will know, was the birthplace of parkrun. On 2nd October 2004 13 runners completed the first 5k with support from Paul  and Joanne Sinton-Hewitt. 17 years later it is a global phenomenon.

This was my running pilgrimage. I have wanted to run Bushy since I ran my first parkrun in September 2012. This would be my 291st.

A gentle rain was falling as I parked up by the Diana Fountain just across from Hampton Court. To stretch my legs - and kill some time, I was an hour early - I ran around the park exploring the tree lined avenues, gated gardens and open marshland. 

Tiny wrens flitted in the hedgerows, crows prowled overhead and deer grazed under the ancient oak and birch trees. High in the canopy bunches of mistletoe broke the stark branch lines like stations on a tube map.

As nine o'clock approached I made my way to the start line with 1000 others including Vicki who I had offered to give a lift to her checkpoint on the Country to Capital route. We had agreed to meet at Bushy Park as she lived close by and we both fancied a run before standing in the cold and wet all day watching others enjoy(?!) themselves.   

Taking it steady, I ran and enjoyed the large crowd of people around me. There were many wearing their 50, 100 or 250 parkrun shirts that are earned by completing the respective number of parkruns. Gloves, hats and waterproof jackets created a colourful spectacle, but were gradually removed as people warmed up as the course progresses.

A simple figure of eight along the paths brought us to the finish. My time of 24:04 put me in 213th place. We don't even get that many runners in my local Catford parkrun so it was definitely my worst ever position but a steady paced 5k.

Vicki and I changed and headed to Cowley for a much needed coffee (thanks Vicki). I dropped her off at CP3 and drove the 8 miles to CP4 where I would be spending my Saturday afternoon. I was relieved to find we were situated under a bridge. This meant we were sheltered from the rain now hammering down on the road above us. On the down side the view wasn't great and something, or someone, had done a large poo under there but all things considered it could have been worse (we could have been out in the open getting drenched like they were at CP3!

Once set up with chocolate bars, sweets, ginger cake, water for filling bottles and the all important time keeping clip board, we got to know one another. I was with Dean, Dee and Sharon. D&D had come down from Wellingborough not far from where I grew up. Sharon was a good laugh and the four of us got on well from the start.

A family of swans and some coots swam serenely past every now and then, and the occasional walker asked what on earth we were up to. Some supporters also joined us from time to time to cheer on their woman or man.

The leaders streaked in, with some not even stopping - like the eventual winner who completed the 43 miles in under five hours! Others filled up and were off again. Over time runners became more frequent and spent longer eating and drinking. When we did get someone who had decided to quit it was the runner up from last year's race who had been suffering from food poisoning. He had still made it to us at mile 33. I sat him in my car and turned the heating on full as he shivered under a blanket. Eventually he was picked up and headed home.

Only one other competitor dropped out and he was just 30 minutes before cut off. Again I bundled him into my car to warm up. It also gave me 10 minutes respite from the cold.

By this time Vicki had come to seek shelter with us and helped keep spirits up with her laughter and positive attitude. To be honest I think we had a lot more fun than the runners.

Finally as darkness fell we left to take the guy in the car to a rail connection. Unfortunately the minibus had broken down and couldn't collect him. We dropped him at a station and I took Vicki back home. We had only eaten Haribo and chocolate al day and the last hot drink was the coffee nine hours previously. New Year's Resolutions be damned we bought fish and chips and demolished them.

It was a long drive home in the dark and wet, but I had a smile on my face after a great day. Tomorrow I would go out and run.

"What a difference a day makes. 24 little hours."  I found myself singing this out loud as I ran up the hill to Greenwich park. The sun was shining and there was hardly a cloud in the bright blue sky. It was cold, but just right for a long run.

That morning I had debated where I should go. North, south, east or west? All I knew is that I was in the mood for muddy trails. I plumped for Epping. Epping Forest has been on my list for six months or more so I took the opportunity.

My route was easy to follow; up to Greenwich Park, under the Thames via the tunnel, through Canary Wharf, onto the River Lea and then straight up the tow path to Chingford. As always it was a bit boring up to Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes and then the city is behind you and the rowers are on the water. A swan cruised just above my head it's wings making a strange pulsing, honking sound. I stopped to admire it's effortless grace.

When I reached Chingford I was gasping from the steep ascent up from the river and stopped for a coffee (proper barista ground beans). From there it was just a short downhill to the entrance to the forest. 

As I was entering from the bottom, the field I had to cross was a swamp. Thick sucking mud and deep puddles. Ah well, this is what I came for. I smashed right through it, trying to keep my balance and wishing I had my trail shoes to keep my feet from slipping. It started to dry out as I climbed and the trees closed in above me. I breathed deeply. Forest bathing. Relax. Listen. Be.

Avoiding the main paths full of Sunday walkers I struck off through the dense woodland, jumping roots, ducking holly branches and smiling broadly. I weaved and dodged my way into the woodland stopping occasionally to take photos of the natural beauty.

After eight miles in the trees, on top of the 18 to get there, I was sated, filthy and knackered. It felt great. I took a train from Loughton station on the Central Line. I would have to change in London and get another ticket back to Lewisham. Sod it, I thought, I can get off at Mile End and run back just as quick, which is just what I did.

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