“If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you”
A few months back I interviewed a man who had raised over £100,000 for Kings College Hospital. An established ultra-runner having completed a handful of testing ultra-races including the Javelina Jundred (a 100 mile dessert race out in Arizona). He was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in June 2017 and continues to defy the life expectancy time of 6 to 9 months his doctors gave him. His fund raising efforts still spiraling to dizzy heights to this day despite his health.
When my podcast co-host said he had bagged this character to come on our tin pot “show” I was nervous as hell. What gave me the right to interview this man? But after a few minutes of talking to Mark Thornberry about running he quickly put us both at ease. During our time he discussed a new events company he had a hand in called Canary Trail Events (CTE). We agreed that we would check them out and following the podcast we entered a few of their races.
Much like the Canary I was first down the mine with their first race “The Raven marathon”. With an elevation of over 5600ft and starting at 8pm in October this was going to be a dark one. Intrigued by the course profile I took Lee Hibbert from Mole Valley Runners out with me one gloomy dark evening to check the course out. “Oh hell”, I wish we hadn’t. This was tough with some very steep downs, relentless climbs and a field with cows who were up close and personal. I have a thing about cows! I hate them! We actually sacked the rest of the reconnaissance off as the cows were impassable and headed to the pub for a pint.
Nevertheless on a dark and insanely wet Saturday night I arrived at the start with my compulsory Canary that was specified as part of the kit list. Full of doubt and praying the cows had moved on. Greeted by the CTE team all in yellow this was a rare occasion where I was kit checked. It’s refreshing to see. Too many of these types of events demand kit requirements who then don’t bother checking frustrates me. Karen Webber, a very highly respected character in the ultra-world greeted me and advised that Mark Thornberry was too ill to attend and start the race off. A shame, but that man need make no excuse in my opinion.
I looked round the room, eyeing up the runners. To me it looked and felt like a very experienced room of 30 to 40 robust runners. Good as I knew what was about to come.
The race brief was given, advising that it was atrocious out on the course (a diversion having to be put in at the stepping stones at the bottom of box hill as it was underwater). We were advised to take care with Kamikaze hill and Goodnight Sweetheart as these were sections where if we fell we would not stop falling until the bottom. If for whatever reason we were to RTC (Refuse To Continue) there was a gong we could hit at the end of each lap to help notify the authorities.
8pm came and 30+ strong warriors lined up at the start with torrential downpour. We were off. 3 laps for the marathon and 4 if you were insane enough for the ultra.
Unsurprisingly the majority of my first lap was spent huddled with some of the runners. I was waiting. Waiting for the cow field. I advised the others it was coming around 4 miles into the route. The first passing came. Avoiding Cow sh*ts the size of that poo next to the poisoned Triceratops in Jurassic Park we were greeted by them huddling on the narrow path. Heart in my throat we were granted safe passage. 1 pass down, 2 to go.
Marshals were scattered all over the course and I have never been on a marathon where the marshals encouragement and running speak has been so on point. “Bit of a more run-able section coming up mate / some good terrain coming up / save yourself on this bit”. It was impressive, more than your usual “Well done”. The course marking as well was of a very high standard. Glow sticks and reflective signs illuminating the way even through parts of the course where visibility was poor with the fog.
Into the aid station after lap 1 and straight out. I did not want to overthink RTC-ing. Mark Thornberry was in my head. I was here for him and on his recommendation. I had no right to RTC.
My confidence was restored when changing the batteries in the head torch. My first lap had been completed with dying batteries! It’s amazing what a bit of extra light does to lift the spirit. The remaining 18miles were run totally alone. Thoughts of my bed, Mark and what others would think if I just threw it in after the second lap… Ohh here we go, the cows again. The passing this time was my worst. Just me and them, having to move in and around the heard. I stood still for a good 30 seconds. The cows looking at me, starting to take interest. Them wondering why this guy had stopped? Sh*t. I took the plunge. Another successful pass. Horrah! Cows 0 – Staples 2.
Spirits were high. Only one more encounter to go. The rest of the course I actually enjoyed, despite poor visibility on the higher terrain due to mist and the steep sections offered at Kamikaze hill and Goodnight Sweetheart. I’m rubbish at downhill but make up for it on the uphill sections.
Into the aid station for a second time I was told by the team that I looked far too happy. A number of people had RTC’d. Whilst disappointing this confirmed that maybe I am a mentally strong head case! I decided to reach out for poles to take with me on the last lap. Spirits high. One more lap to go. Didn’t care it was pissing it down, didn’t care it was midnight. I genuinely didn’t think this one would have been completed or even started throughout the week up to the event. Starting lap three the runners high came to me. No choice but to finish now. I was “out out” and having a good time!
The technical terrain meant that my pace was slow but physically I wasn’t tiring. As I approached the cows for the last time, running down the path waiting for the sets of white dots from their eyes to reflect off my head torch they finally approached. They had come slightly further up the track. I climbed the bank and passed by with haste. Cows 0 – Staples 3. Nothing would stop me now. A casual pace into the finish and it was done. What a night.
If it doesn’t challenge you then it won’t change you. This one was more mental than physical for me and very satisfying to have been tested and overcome. A number of runners I had eyed up from the start had not finished and with 4 finishers for the marathon I was made up that I persisted with the race.
As a first event for the Canary team there isn’t anything they could have done better. The weather was gutting for them but it was managed well. Route map at the start, well organised team, well signed route, free photos (thanks to Dan Milton) and a fantastic aid station. Knowledgeable marshals and some big names from the running world in the CTE team helping out (they know who they are) makes this outfit credible before the race even began.
Would I recommend? Yes, I think I would. But with a warning – this one ain’t for beginners. Even without the rain, this one ain’t for beginners. If you are of a nervous disposition – this ain’t for you. But if you are made of stern stuff, will take on a challenge and keep your cool then bring it on!
I ran with a number of thoughts ticking through my mind and from them I wish Mark the best and hope to meet the man face to face one day who was responsible for getting me to endure The Raven!
Marks charity page https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/MarkThornberry