Sunday, 5 September 2010

The end of the road: moving on from road racing

When I started running in races almost fifteen years ago, most organised events were road races.  You would line up with between a few hundred and many thousands of like minded runners for a mass start, followed by miles of running on tarmac.  Some courses were scenic, some were pretty dull suburban or city centre routes.

Memento from my first ever road race
But the common theme was that they were all on road or pavement.  Most road races were organised by running clubs.  In recent years there has been rapid growth in companies specialising in organising races with a difference, many with an emphasis on fun, from cows in the Mooathon to gorillas in the Gorilla Run.  You can cover yourself in mud at GRIM and Hellrunner.  And you can Go Beyond with some serious off road endurance events.

But in this, the first in an occasional series on alternatives to road racing, I'm going to look at the Long Distance Walkers Association. The LDWA may not immediately spring to mind when you're looking for a running event, after all the name is a bit of a giveaway!  However, they organise some superb "challenge events" which are open to both runners and walkers.

So how does an LDWA challenege event differ from a regular road race?

Small and cheap

LDWA events are typically small, with just a few hundred or fewer entrants.  You don't get fancy goodie bags here, just friendly marshals, checkpoints en route with water, squash, biscuits and sometimes cake.  The larger events sometimes have hot food at the end and there is usually tea and coffee at the start.  And all this for as little as £6 - £10 for the marathon distance.  Compare that to the cost of your average road race.

Walkers and runners welcome

LDWA events are primarily aimed at walkers, but the challenge events are open to runners, and at every LDWA event I have been to the runners have been most welcome.  On a typical marathon distance event, the runners set off an hour after the walkers, so that the checkpoints don't have to stay open all day.   The beauty of these events is that they often have multiple distance options, say 10 miles, 16 miles or 26 miles, with the different distances sharing sections of the route.  And there is often flexibility for slower walkers and runners to set off a bit early.  The atmosphere is always friendly and supportive.

Trail running

The events are usually almost all off road, on footpaths, towpaths, through woods, across fields and farms, up and down hills.  And more hills.  Its funny how rarely you find a flat trail run.

Self  navigation

Don't expect to switch off and just follow a thousand runners in front of you.  This isn't the London Marathon!  These events don't have mile markers and aren't marked on the ground.  Instead, at registration, you'll typically be given 3-4 pages of detailed directions to follow.  This may sound daunting, but they are usually easy to follow.

I recommend taking an OS map and marking it up with the route (there is often a map on the wall at the start that you can copy from).  I mostly use a mix of following the directions and the runners in front of me, although the latter sometimes leads to adding on an extra mile or two when they turn round and admit they are lost.  The map comes in useful as backup if you do stray from the official route.

One exception, was at the superb Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1 marathon where a quarter mile section through a wood of giant yew trees, which would have been otherwise impossible to navigate, was clearly marked with what must have been a very large ball of string!

You will typically have a card to be stamped at each checkpoint too, which can be exchanged for a well earned certificate of completion at the finish.

Its not a race!

You'll be lucky to get a personal best on one of these events!  The navigation slows you down, as does the surface underfoot and the ubiquitous hills, but thats the beauty of these events - they are all about getting out in the countryside and enjoying running.  There is always someone else nearby to chat to on the way round.

How do I enter?

Check out the LDWA Challenge Events Calendar and search for challenge events.  For many events you don't need to pre-enter.

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