Irwell Valley 20 – 5th March 2017

A couple of months ago after I had entered this year’s Manchester marathon, I was looking for a 20 mile spring warm up race. Initially I thought about the usual suspects of Spen and East Hull. Unfortunately I was going to be away for the weekend of the former and the latter was going to be only two weeks before the marathon itself, which I thought would be a tad close. I eventually discovered the Irwell Valley 20, which being a full four weeks before Manchester seemed perfect.

This was going to be the first running of the race so obviously it was a bit of an unknown quantity. The blurb on the Crazy Legs website and Facebook page suggested it would be a flattish run on trails and footpaths in countryside just to the north of Manchester and would be pretty much ideal for those wanting to test themselves before a spring marathon. So duly convinced, I entered.

In the weeks that followed I kept a check on the Facebook page where the organisers posted regular updates and photos of the course. It was then that I began to experience my first shoe choice conundrum. (Those of you who were anywhere near me before the Dalby Dash will know that I like a good shoe choice conundrum). The majority of the course they said was on good hard trails but there were some paths that might be muddy if the weather was bad. In the end I settled on road shoes.

About a week before the race, the organisers sent a race pack by email. This was very comprehensive, including instructions on how to attach your timing chip to your shoe laces (useful if you’re a bit cack handed like me) and even a route description. They said that the course would be marked with direction signs and have marshals at key junctions but that we should familiarise ourselves with the description so that we would have a rough idea of where we were going. Anyway, more on that later…..

The day of the race duly dawned and I left Leeds in pleasant sunshine only to arrive about an hour later in Greater Manchester in miserable weather. Proof (if any were needed) that God is indeed a Yorkshireman. The race location was very easy to find, just off the M60 in Prestwich. The trip over the M62 had been trouble free and quiet with it being fairly early on a Sunday morning and I got there with plenty of time to spare. I occupied that time by at different points losing and subsequently refinding my timing chip, race number and one of my gloves.

At just after 9.30 we were off in steady rain, setting out on a cycle route north, crossing over the M60 motorway and then onto a disused railway line path. The first few miles were a gradual climb, which wasn’t too taxing and I felt pretty comfortable. I must admit I wasn’t paying too much attention to where I was going and at about 4 miles the trail came to an abrupt end at a road junction. Just in front of me was a fellow runner looking perplexed with his arms out. We had missed a turn somewhere. In total I would say there may have been as many as 25 of us standing about debating what to do and where we had gone wrong. There was nothing else for it but to head back the way we had come, picking up other runners who were also following in the wrong direction. We soon found a little sign and were back on the right track. Some people speculated that the marker had previously been pointing in the wrong direction (the work of a cheeky Manc scallywag maybe) but perhaps we just hadn’t seen it. In total I reckon the total diversion had added about a third of a mile.

After this we soon came to a shortish road section and then onto a poorer path, which also included the only real climb in the run. After having done a loop near the town of Radcliffe we then proceeded back down the main trail we had come up previously.

Much of the route is as described above, going through woodland, alternating between very good paths and shorter rougher sections with the odd bridge crossing thrown in. It is a two lapper with the first one being around 12.5 miles and the second approximately 7.5. Near the end of the first lap there is a sign telling you there is only 400 metres to go. This is unwelcome on two counts. Firstly it appeared to be much more than that to the finish line and secondly of course because you still have another lap to go!

By now the steady rain had turned into a torrential downpour. Muddy paths had become flowing streams. Any attempt to skirt around puddles became futile and I just ploughed straight through. I was regretting having chosen to wear a base layer under my Kippax vest because it was becoming quite heavy. My timer chip was flapping off my shoe and my number had become a crumpled mess. To be fair, it hadn’t look that great when I first put it on, given my aforementioned cack handedness. The weather was truly wretched but this didn’t appear to dampen the mood of the marshals, who were terrific in their support. I know everybody says that about marshals but they really were. The only thing worse than running in driving rain, is having to stand around in it.

Towards the end of the race, I “lapped” a few tail end runners. Part of me felt sympathy that their ordeal wasn’t going to end for another couple of hours (especially given that they were now walking) but to be honest mostly I was just relieved that I had nearly finished. I think that I completed the race quite strongly and my surge in the last quarter of a mile or so meant that I managed a fractional negative split. My official time was 2:38:24 and I came 38th out of 251 finishers, 6th out of 34 in my age category.

I’m not sure whether I would do the Irwell Valley 20 again. It’s not a road race but neither is it a full on off-road run like an LDWA event where you would wear trail shoes without hesitation. It’s somewhere in between so that although about three quarters of the route is on good firm surfaces, there are other bits that are a bit slippery in bad weather. As such it’s difficult to gage whether the time you end up doing is a good marker for your forthcoming marathon or not. The race would probably work better in late summer when the trails are drier as a preparation race for an autumn marathon. Also £21 (for UKA affiliated) is a bit on the pricey side, when you consider they are not closing any roads, the course isn’t fully marshalled and you don’t get a T-shirt – although you do receive a medal.

Still, the flapjack at the end was delicious, the marshals as I said were great, the results appeared very promptly and there is plenty of very positive feedback on the Facebook page from other runners. So it might just be me being a misery guts. I blame Mark, he started it with his Harewood Half report!

Written by Craig Worley