Friday, 21 April 2017

The Spring Wolf Run – Wild Running Reviewed…

Last year I decided to give myself some of a purpose for keeping fit and in physical shape and booked myself in for the first Wolf Run of the year. For those unaware of what the Wolf Run is, it is one of the most popular of a growing number of mud and obstacle races that have been launched in recent years. Taking place four times a year to correspond with the seasons, it features a 10km run across rough farm terrain (hill climbs, wooded areas, ditches and such like) , interspersed with a variety of assault-style obstacles such as flooded crawl tunnels, cargo nets and slides. Some of these verge towards the intensity of a fun run (less distance, easy obstacles), whilst some like “Tough Guy” are fully brutal and geared towards those in the military and fitness professionals. From what I could tell, the Wolf Run was reasonably brutal without being ridiculous and more importantly seemed to be well-run and not too far away to travel. 

(Looks like fun?)

Between November and March I put some effort into training, though I struggle with too much running as I have a dodgy right knee which gets worse with repeated high impact activity (I try and run on the local park instead of the pavement). As such, my fitness improved and I felt ready to tackle the course. Then in March I was struck down with a particularly grim cold virus that immediately put a stop to my training. Not only was I subjected to the usual sore throat, high temperature, blocked nose, etc, but my asthma flared up with a vengeance. Fortunately this is a rare occurrence and 99% of the time my inhalers remain stashed away in a draw, but when I suffer from particularly bad cases of colds and flu I really struggle with my breathing and as such am fully reliant upon them. Initially I tried to shrug it off as something that would go within a few days but as the month progressed I failed to shrug it off (try getting a decent nights sleep and relaxation with my two children – utterly impossible) and I started to come to the conclusion that my participation in the Wolf Run was utterly doomed.

Then about 5 days beforehand my asthma lessened and I started to feel a little better, which at least allowed me a couple of light sessions before D day arrived. I made the decision that on the Friday before the run I wouldn’t do any exercise in order to reduce the chance of injuring myself and as a consequence I went to bed restless and began to toss and turn, resulting in the inevitable insomnia to which I have suffered since Em and Liv have been on the scene; any time I feel like I have the combined need and opportunity to sleep I immediately start having panic attacks and lie awake for hours on end. Finally at around 1.30am I drifted off, only to wake at 5.30am when one of the girls stirred. I knew then that there was no chance of going back to sleep and therefore I would have to go to battle on 4 hours sleep; hardly an ideal preparation time for a significant physical challenge. 

The Spring and Autumn Wolf Run events are held at a farm near to Leamington Spa, which on a Saturday morning is less than an hour from Kingswinford and the directions are well sign-posted on the surrounding roads. We pulled into the car park and it became clear just how well organized the event was as there were food bars, tents, toilets and merchandising stalls, giving the impression of a major festival. (with over four thousand people competing on each of the days, it could be argued that’s exactly what it is). For those competing, all that is required is to hand in a consent form in the admin tent to the queue with the first letter of your surname and then to complete the medical form on the back of your number, which then needs to be pinned to your chest. Once that’s done it is simply a case of waiting for the off, warming up and taking in some of the atmosphere. Fortunately I had managed to persuade Alison to come along with me (leaving the two trouble-makers at home with their grandparents!) so I at least had someone to talk to and we spent the time looking at the start and end of the course with some of the mud pits and climb nets indicting the challenge ahead. The most interesting thing was to watch the other runners as they started to gather as the array of different people competing was quite vast. Alison put them into four buckets; group one being ex-military and professional fitness gurus; group two being those who like to keep fit but don’t do it for a living (my category); group three being those doing it for a laugh and to get drunk afterwards and group four being people out of shape for whom it will be a massive challenge, but they won’t let a lack of fitness get them down (“aw bless” she cruelly dubbed them!). There were a lot of rugby players competing and most were in small groups, making me wonder if I would find it harder doing it alone. 

The start times begin at 10am and go through to 3pm with batches of 250 runners being set off at 15 minute intervals. Fortunately I was in the first batch which meant that I didn’t have too much time to wait around in anticipation. With ten minutes to go, we were called over to the start line where a couple of Radio One types started barking instruction at us and putting us through a warm up routine (“I’m fucked already mate” came one muttered response alongside me as we jogged around in a circle and then started crawling). One guy whose birthday it was ended up being called to the middle of the circle and had to do a set of burpees. Just what you need beforehand…

(So much cold water)

As soon as the countdown finished, everyone started running, with many taking the opportunity to dash to the front. Not having undertaken the Wolf Run before, I muscled past twenty or so slower runners then settled comfortably into a position somewhere in the first third, allowing enough space in which to check my footing and anticipate sudden movements in and around me. Within the first two hundred metres there was a sequence of tyres that required scrambling over, before another running stretch then a further set of hurdles. At this point, people began to space out, with the seriously fit still tearing off in the distance and the unfit plodders gasping for breath at the back. I found myself in a group with some rugby players who were running as a team and it was at that point that we hit the first real challenge, a set of tunnels submerged with mud that we had to scramble through on our elbows, thistles and brambles tearing at our hands as the smell of agricultural dung filled our lungs (“this is quite literally shit” came the anguished cry to my right). This early shock helped me immeasurably; I had nobody to communicate with and therefore no temptation to complain and as such the surrounding whinging came across as pathetic and unnecessary. As far as I was concerned it was wasted energy and the sooner I left them behind the better. As we scrambled to our feet, I fastened my pace and left them behind, overtaking another group as the ground began to incline and we began on a steep hill climb. Once again, hearing those around me struggling with the rough ground and steep inclination spurred me on and I sprinted the final section to the top of the hill where a tall climbing board awaited us. With every obstacle I had a sense of nervous anticipation as there is always the chance that it could prove especially difficult or end in injury, but fortunately I have reasonably upper body strength and don’t weight a huge amount (80kg) so any climbing hurdle was fairly straightforward for me and actually proved some respite from the running. Back down the hill we went, and then through a small wooded area and through some small mud pits before coming up to the first lake section. Here, the water came to waist height and we simply had to wade slowly through the cold water at a diagonal to the far side and again the whinging of those around me helped to spur me on (“Wish I hadn’t gone out last night” was one that I was tempted to retort with “try having four hours sleep mate”).


With the first section complete, I found that I settled into something of a pace and probably only ended up overtaking another twenty or so runners for the remainder of the course. At this stage, my recollection of the exact order of obstacles blurs slightly as tiredness started to set in after the first 3km and it was a case of “head down” and just get on with it. There were more mud pits – these ones surprisingly deep – then some blue tunnels made of plastic that were very tight and slippery and therefore hard to travel through quickly. I remember suffering from claustrophobia as a child but here there was no room for hesitation so I simply ensured I remained in space and chose to tackle tunnels and climbs without anyone crowding me ahead or behind. By far the hardest of these was a set of tunnels that required us to get on all fours and crawl down into the earth under a huge log – 5 of the 6 holes were submerged in water so I naturally chose the one I could see. Underneath there was a dark 10 metre scramble over rocks and mud to the end when I realized to my horror that the opposite end was completely submerged and therefore no getting away without my fair share of pain. Taking a complete plunge under the mud I managed to get under and back through fairly quickly, but I could imagine quite a few people panicking at that one throughout the day. 


There then followed what seemed like the longest straight run, but that was largely because it was up hill and through a dense wooded area in which we had to take special care not to lose our footing and turn an ankle, or be bashed in the face by a branch or brambles. At certain points there was no option but to slow down to a gentle jog in order to carefully avoid the hazards underfoot and I really started to feel my knee tighten and therefore my right calf take the extra burden. After what seemed like an age we reached the halfway point in which there was a water refreshment stand, before another hill climb and then some hay bale scrambles and more tyres. Soon after came the bit that had daunted most people prior to the start – the lake crossing. The organizers had made it clear that you had to be a strong swimmer to attempt this and an alternative route had been prepared to the right but naturally I found myself headed straight for the water, coming to the conclusion that it would be a hollow victory if I completed the thing by ducking out of the central challenge. I slid into the water and after a couple of steps the bed disappeared from beneath my feet and the air completely left my lungs as the cold water rose to my neck. Initially I attempted a front crawl but on realizing how much effort that would take, I resorted to a gentler breast stroke (awful for bad knees) and fixed my gaze on the far bank (probably around 80 metres in the distance). Again, huge credit to the organizers as there were a number of canoeists scattered around the lake to ensure help was on hand for anyone struggling (and there were a few). It would be easy to panic with so many flailing bodies around but by maintaining a steady pace and keeping a consistent stroke I eventually managed to reach the far bank, helping another guy to get up the steep mud. It felt like my lungs had completely collapsed and I realized then that I had clearly not fully recovered from my virus as I just couldn’t catch my breath and the mental effort required to start running again was vast. 

Somehow I managed to coax my legs back into a reasonable pace and after a couple of minutes the cold at least left my body and the worst of the water evaporated. I recall little of the next phase, except that quite a few of the marshals (all of whom provided excellent encouragement as we slogged our way through the course) kept shouting that there wasn’t long to go and every so often another mud pit was flanked by camera signs indicating that we would be snapped in our anguish. At this point (I’m sure it was at this point) there suddenly loomed a ditch jump which for me proved to be one of the hardest things as my right knee was really starting to go and I was nervous about having to launch myself a great distance as I couldn’t be confident about landing correctly, especially with the ground being so uneven. As it happened I made a real hash of it, slowing down beforehand and almost partially descending the ditch before taking the lap and really feeling in on impact (“Should have jumped earlier mate” came a helpful shout as I ran off). The final major obstacle was one that most people had actually been looking forward to but again it was one I really struggled with; the water slide. As I climbed to the top, there were only a couple of others ahead of me so didn’t have long to wait, but as I did so a marshal suggested I took a run up and dive over the top. Having played a bit of rugby when I was younger I knew that this was easier said than done as if you don’t really know the terrain you can end up injuring yourself quite badly. It would appear that there isn’t a great deal of protection underneath the pink plastic of the slide and its fair to say that the entire of my groin area took a massive pounding as I rocketed down to the bottom (“put your arms out like superman” came the shouts). As per the ditch jump, I couldn’t help but feel like my efforts had been underwhelming, but I made it down and there was only another couple of kilometers to go. Head down and keep going.

(You gotta just keep going)

The final few sections were hard; the ground underfoot was rutted and hard (think of a barren farmers field in summer), there were some further mud pits which really disrupted the rhythm of my running, plus a couple more climbing sections. Eventually, I caught sight of the first section with more batches of runners setting off which indicated that we were nearing the end of the course. I say “we” – actually by this stage I was on my own with a huge gap in front and behind me. As the inflatable finishing line loomed up there were some further ditches, followed by a couple of cargo nets (the photographer behind at the top of one), followed by another tunnel scramble and then the final mud pit which a number of people took a photo-finish plunge into but I simply slide down and waded through – partly because I had made ground on one guy in front and felt there was a slight chance of catching him and partly because I didn’t have any energy for aesthetic finishes. The strangest part of that was that there was a genuine crowd who had gathered to watch and having spent the entire event in a world of my own, to see a huge screen and hundreds of people around was slightly bizarre!

(The final plunge)

Alison was there as I finished and she brought me a bottle of water once I had the obligatory finishing photo and taken my goodie bag. The lack of sleep had caught up with me, as well as the lack of hydration (I usually drink a lot of water but hadn’t done so that day in case of a lack of toilet availability – as it turned out this wasn’t a problem). I was told I had completed it in 1 hour and 16 minutes, which considering the average is between 1 hour 30 and 2 hours was pretty good. The fastest time recorded that weekend was something like 52 or 53 minutes so in light of my unsatisfactory preparation was pretty good. Once again, huge credit to the Wolf Run organizers as there is free water for runners and also hoses to get the worst of the mud off. I quickly changed in the car park into clean warmer clothes and we took a walk to get some food (the hot pork rolls were awesome) and watch others finishing. It was only when midday arrived and there were still people from my group finishing that I realized how well I had performed and what I was capable despite the hurdles and it did make me wonder what I could have achieved had I have been 100% beforehand. Then again, some of those finishing in quick times were seriously fit.

(I'm done)

The goodie bag you get contains a protein bar, water and a wrist band, along with a really nice Wolf Run t-shirt, so there is a sense of having competed once it’s over. I’ve got to give huge credit to the way it was organized and also to Alison who encouraged me to set up a  Just Giving page on which I managed to raise over £200 for Cancer Research. The punchline was that I could barely walk for two days, my right knee was all over the place and as I write this two weeks later I am still trying to shake off a terrible cold that reappeared within days of the race. Not only that but my asthma has also flared up again and I’ve really felt like an aging wreck. Was it worth it? Yes – it was hard yet invigorating and with the exception of a couple of the tunnels and the lake crossing was genuinely a lot of fun. Highly recommended, though I’ll give it a couple of months before deciding on whether to re-enter next year!