Irwell Valley 20 Trail Race report

Irwell Valley 20 Mile Trail Race, Prestwich, Manchester

March 5th, 2017, saw Crazy Legs Events’ inaugural running of the Irwell Valley 20 Trail Race. 266 entrants showed up on the day and braved the elements, an impressive 251 lasting the full 20 miles. Luckily for us, all the gathered VRUK members saw it through to the finish.

One thing Manchester is known for is its weather, in particular weather of the damp, soggy variety. For a week solid prior to the event it rained. It also rained a bit the week before that. As a lead up to a trail race, these were not really ideal conditions. The day of the race began differently, however, and we were treated to a bright and dry early morning, but which also had unfortunate side effect of giving us the coldest day of the month by far, topping out at a frighteningly chilly 6°C.

We made our way to the start area in Drinkwater Park and assembled for a group photo and chat. It was around this time that it began to rain. After something like a 20 minute delay race management were ready to get things under way. Off we went, through Philips Park with a sharp climb to a rather bouncy pedestrian bridge spanning the M60, and on to what is familiar turf for a few of the Manchester Vegan Runners: the Outwood Trail. Outwood is a great trail, offering the choice of a hard surface with a narrow clear path for the runner or cyclist, or something a little more soft under foot off to the side, but understandably a little too soft at this time of year.

It was at the end of the main Outwood stretch that the only real problem with the race arose. Checking the Strava Flyby, it seems that some time after the lead runner passed a course marker, some cheeky scallywag reversed the direction of the arrow to then point runners off on a tour of Radcliffe’s ASDA, rather than a sharp left turn back towards the main Outwood trail, over the bridge and on to one of the short road sections of the race. They, or some other toerag, had also dragged fallen trees across the trail on this short section (so at least that misdirected group missed out on a short hurdle course). It’s also worth noting there were also issues with the last group of runners continuing down the main Outwood straight, missing out the twisting/turning section altogether. The course definitely needed more or better positioned marshals around the Radcliffe loop, but it is a new event and it’s sure to be corrected when the race is back next year, hopefully with more runners in attendance.

The upshot of these events was something of a surprise to both Dan and myself as we were now running directly side-by-side for the first time in the race, a quarter of a mile back he’d already pulled out a lead of around a minute prior to his diversion. Dan took it very well, exchanged pleasantries, said it couldn’t be helped and kicked on – the perfect way to handle something out of your hands in a race like this, not letting it plague the mind and potentially ruin a race, but accepting it and shrugging it off – well played, Dan. Other runners were noticeably and audibly less impressed with the situation.

From now on the rain would get heavier and heavier as we made our way back up the twisting trail, back down Outwood and steeply down to the Clifton cut back, with all its mud and mush. Next up was a loop of Clifton Marina and 4 miles along the Irwell, with a duck under the M60 this time. I think this is the point where Dan suggested the rain could be classed as “p***ing down” in his facebook post, and that was no exaggeration, it really did get quite relentless. No surprise that this also coincided with the section that provided the biggest tests. Prior to this the going had been mostly solid underfoot, but here the runners were presented with a few more tricky technical sections with a runaway tumble towards the river, an undulating tree root laden trail, gloopy mud, plenty of twists and turns and a single track of seemingly never-ending puddles besides the Pilkington’s tile factory. This particular section is one of those where you cannot pass and are therefore limited to only go as fast as the person in front, with the added potential pitfall that running too close can give you too little time to judge the next step as the terrain varies from step to step with slippery sides and puddles of varying, unknown depths. And some, I can personally vouch for, were quite deep and icy cold! Thrilling stuff! Well, bracing at the very least, and maybe just what was needed to help reduce the swelling on any injured purple toes anyone might have had.

So back over the Irwell we went, on through Waterdale Meadow and under the 13 arches through Philips Park and back down to Drinkwater Park. A little undulating, but good firm ground under foot and a chance for the rain to better wash away some of the previously acquired mud in more open surroundings. Next came probably the least interesting part of the race, another trip over the river for a view of HMP Forest Bank, some winding paths and out onto the road again. There was a bright side, however, as here we were greeted by the race team’s most enthusiastic and genuinely supportive marshal who also managed to snap quite a few photos of us and posted them freely to facebook.


Once the short road section was out of the way, a quick cut back into the park and the finish line would be only an easy, steady climb away… of course, we’re only 12.5 miles in at this point, it’s now time for a 2nd lap of Clifton Marina, Pilkington’s and around again we went. This is where the mental battle became tougher, having to run the same trails we tore through an hour or so ago wasn’t going to be easy. Couple this with the incessant rainfall and temperatures that seemingly gave up bothering to rise any further at around 10am, and it’s understandable why a few called it quits at this point. None of VRUK, though, we all stuck at it.

So the second time around. Where there had been mud previously there was now slop. Where there had been a thrilling roller coaster down to the river, 266 pairs of shoes had created more of a mudslide. And best of all, what once had been a tricky to negotiate series of puddles with muddy, slippery sides, now presented as a series of long, unavoidable canals of the most bitterly cold ice water with only one sensible route to take- directly down the middle and through them. Now this write up isn’t meant to be a blog of my personal race, more an overview of an event at which VRUK members represented strongly, but a few things happened in my race towards the end that I’d like to share. Feel free to skip this bit and go to the tl;dr and results! I particularly remember feeling less refreshed and more broken having waded through that trough for a second time. It wasn’t giddy fun this time around. As with any race consisting of lapped sections, it’s inevitable that the faster runners will catch up to those running slower at some point. What I found one of the best series of moments in the race occurred here, it was the genuine support and good-natured banter offered by those working hard through their first lap and their desire to make way and let the faster runners through as quickly as possible – massively impressive. These runners had been on their feet just as long as everyone else, but had another 10 miles to go until they’d receive their well-earned medals, spending maybe 4 hours or more out in those terrible conditions… and they were more concerned with not wanting to slow someone else down by a few seconds than running their own race. Remarkable.

Make no mistakes, this 2nd lap was tough stuff. I don’t think I’ve personally had to dig that deep just to try to maintain a pace before. Now, in my case, this could have had more to do with the lack of fuelling, as my belt was still stuffed with untouched dates and gels. Quite why it never occurred to me to ingest some of them during the last 8 miles I can only put down to the horrendous weather issues and the constant demands of the terrain, but the nett result was that, with 4 miles to go, I’d begun pacing the wrong side of 7:30 miles and had horribly cramped calves and a very tight rear thigh muscle in my right leg. At around the 18 mile point someone passed me for the first time since very early in the race, “it’s not long to go now” he said as he eased on by. Not too long after a Bury AC runner came past and also uttered something positive which I can no longer recall. Pleasant words, but it wasn’t doing my mind much good. But a fellow Vegan came to my rescue. On the last long straight a young woman began shouting “GO ON VEGAN! I’M VEGAN, TOO!” and other highly supportive cries as I lapped her. This was immensely helpful, kicked the doubt from my mind and helped me find something I didn’t think was there. I went from over 8 minute miles to pushing 7s again and under in spots, and before I knew it I was over the line in a time I never thought I’d manage. As I stood around at the end, medal in one hand, juice in the other, the young lady passed the finish line to begin her 7.5 mile 2nd lap and again offered loads of positive, encouraging words. I don’t know what I shouted back, whether it was at all audible or just random grunts and noises, but what I wanted to say then and now is “thank you!”.

Coming to a halt at the end of the race offered us all the opportunity to realise just how unbelievably cold it was and how standing around in wet running gear in a car park is a pretty daft thing to do. It was ridiculously cold. Normally we’d all wait around and meet up and chat, but this day was tough and nobody was blamed for wanting to get home asap. There were defrosting trips to cars, “2 more minutes then we’ll go back outside”, and wet, soggy clothes exchanged for cold, soon to be soggy clothes. Some of us did get together for more ill-advised rainy chatting in the car park, but cramped legs and ever-colder body temperatures soon put an end to that nonsense. No matter how cold we all were, there were marshals stood still out on the course for over 4 hours – that must have been tough, too!

tl;dr: Irwell Valley 20: character building.

Here’s the results from the members present. Everyone did amazingly well. We might not have all achieved the times we would have liked or aimed for before the event, but given the conditions and toughness of the race, the fact we all came home safely and made it around is the real achievement. VRUK finished 2nd place in the Male team competition (first 3 club members home per club) and Stella’s soon-to-be 2nd claim Warrington ladies came first. Great Vegan representation in the results!