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Oxon 40 - Saturday 4th May

I decided on the Oxon 40 as the lastlong training run for the Comrades. It's local being just past and around Henley and compared to the alternatives available on the same day it was incredibly cheap at just £12. The sort of price you might expect to hear from your Grandparents in the context of 'eee I remember when races were just £12, and bread was 3d and we all had to live in a shoebox'. It's gratifying that you can still find races exempt from the skyrocket inflation that has taken over much of our sport in recent years.

Actually this is a Long Distance Walkers Event (LWDA), a group whose existence had hitherto escaped my attention - to my loss because they run a huge number of events all over the country and put on some great trail races. I will certainly be joining and entering a lot more. Joining would have reduced the entry fee to just £8!

As an LDWA event, there are walking groups heading out as well as the runners with starts staggered so that everyone arrives back at base camp within a reasonable time window. The Oxon 40 is held in conjunction with a 20 mile event both for runners and walkers. In my case it turned out there was a 38 Mile event too as the instructions flagged up a shortcut at the end of the run which I had to take as I had a prior engagement with rather a lot of curry and beer and time was pressing!

Speaking of food, since taking up ultras at the beginning of the year I've been struck by the sheer quality and quantity of food laid on by these events. This one took the prize so far for catering though was pushed hard by the Woodhouse Challenge 2 days later. The spread at the finish, with cold meats, potatoes, pasta, all manner of sandwiches, not to mention the obligatory oceans of homemade cake, warmed my cockles. Cockles were about the only thing not on offer as it went. You start off as you mean to go on and take on some calories before the off and if you so wished could easily have had a full meal at most of the five subsequent checkpoints before the main event at the finish.

This type of race was a first for me as it was completely self-navigated and finding the correct path was intended as part of the challenge of the event. No mean task. The route is released a few days in advance of the race in the form of detailed instructions, occupying in this case 8 pages of A4 when printed. There are almost no roads used; instead a mass of trails from established paths such as the Ridgeway, Cotswold Way, Oxfordshire Way etc. down to barely visible scrapes in the soil. No single path is used for any significant length of time. I spent several days trying to fathom it out using Google Earth and then caved in a bought their recommended Ordnance Survey map. Only to spend several more days poring over that with pencil and eraser. Buying the larger scale map would have probably been a better option.

I'd tried a similar navigational exercise at the Country to Capital and was rubbish there, relying on the skills of others, and this was no exception. A tougher challenge this in fact as all the instructions were written in what amounted to code.

It was an extremely lumpy course starting close to the Thames as the YMCA in Henley and passing through towns and villages in a loop before returning to the start. The scenery was spectacular throughout and there were at least 3 bluebell woods in full bloom and the many steep ascents rewarded with fantastic vistas from the summits. Some ascents were even difficult to walk up though there were no gradients of any great length.

I ran for the majority of the race with Katie and David who ended up 5th equal. They were both training for something epic as with most entrants to these things. One was a 24-hour race and the other the North Downs Way 100M. I enjoyed their company and was thankful for their superior navigating!

Running while navigating added a layer of difficulty and frustration as the bouncing motion meant you couldn't keep your eye focused on the current spot in the instructions. Each paragraph of route guidance was liberally peppered with a myriad of abbreviations and acronyms (TL, TR, TK etc) and your eyes jumped about the page and invariably latched onto the wrong one forcing many halts.

Staring at the instructions on the hoof left you exposed to trip hazards and we all bit the loam a couple of times each. Katie at one point tripped over a stump and ended up landing sideways, hip-first onto another. It looked excruciating but she is clearly as tough as nails as she carried on after a grimace and a short walk. I'm sure the bruise must have been something to tell the grandkids about.

As the race went on we started to pass walkers who'd set out earlier in the day so there was some banter with them and the sun came out until it was actually hot and sun cream was essential. I found I was going pretty strongly around the 30M point but when I took the shortcut 2 miles later and left my companions to finish the full route I was starting to feel it. I am starting to think this happens pretty much whatever speed you start out at within reason and I'm thinking next time (the Comrades!) to go out less conservatively though still well within myself.

The final stretch took in the narrow crossing of the Thames at Hambledon Lock looked amazing in the sun and I couldn't help but pause for a while and take in the scenery. A handy excuse for a breather.

I was first back of the runners though only because I'd cut it short which meant they had to knock me up a bespoke certificate. I was slightly aggrieved that it said 35 miles when I'd done 38 but hey!

A really great event and no doubt put on because of the generosity of a lot of volunteers as at the entry price it's hard to see how it could be for-profit.

I recommend checking out the LDWA site and seeing if they have a run near you - they almost certainly do. There's a good chance you'll be introduced to trails and scenery you never knew existed. This was such a good training event for the Comrades as it had some serious gradients and there was very little flat terrain. That said the navigating slowed it down and I finished in 7 hours 11 minutes for 38 miles - the kind of time I'd like to try and run 54 miles in on the 2nd June!

Oxon 40 Web site

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