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The P Coy Challenge – For Real

I ran the P Coy Challenge to raise money for Help for Heroes.  If you’d like to help, point your browser at http://www.justgiving.com/anthonypounder.  Thanks.

Back in November of last year whilst recovering from a knee operation (which had kept me from running most of the year) I came up with the idea of running in an event called the P Coy Challenge.  This event involves running the Parachute Regiment Selection course in military boots whilst wearing a bergan (back pack) weighted with 35 lbs.  The terrain is a mostly off road affair featuring some extreme hills and a water section.

Looking back at my blog post regarding this idea, I have no sane explanation as to why I fancied doing it or why I thought I could do it – as I’ve just typed, I was recovering from a knee op having missed the best part of 6 months training as well as piled on more than a few pounds in weight/fat in that period.

Anyway, I stated here on this blog that I was going to do it and blog about it and that was that – I was committed.  This blog entry documents the events of the 13th September and my attempt to complete the P Coy Challenge.  Reading this may encourage you to have a crack at in 2010 or it may make you think "Not Bloody Likely" and put you off forever.

The 13th starts for me at about 07:15 in a Premier Inn based situated in the north east of England in a town called West Auckland.  The morning was cloudy and cool, which was a relief after Saturdays weather of scorchio.  I had a bowl of pasta, a banana, an apple flap jack and a cup of tea for breakfast while watching Match of The Day in my room.  Bunde who was also taking part had a bowl of cereal and a cup of tea.

We left the Premier Inn and headed for the race which is held at Catterick Garrison.  The location of the race took a bit of finding as Catterick Garisson is a huge place and the event was hardly (if at all) signposted.  By the time we made it to the start we were in a convoy of 4 cars and a motorbike all looking for the competitors car park.  Not a good organisational effort by the Armed Forces!

Once parked up we got changed into our t-shirts, shorts, applied petroleum jelly to our feet and put on socks and boots.  We filled our pockets with bananas, Haribo sweets, flap jack and energy drinks, hefted the bergans to our backs, grabbed a couple of small bags filled with a pound of sand each and headed for the start.  We’d not gone more than 2 or 300 metres before we saw a black Ford Transit style van from which a group of military looking blokes jumped out – these boys looked fit and more than capable of completing the course – intimidating!

A little further on the competitors were divided into 2 groups – those running that were competing with boots and bergan and those that weren’t.  It was soon clear that there were a few more than the 200 odd bergan runners who had run it last year and I estimated that there were maybe 5 – 600 competitors (I was about 5 – 600 short as there were 1,146 bergan competitors finished within the 3 hour cut off time).

We entered the boots and bergan enclosure and headed for the weigh in stations which were just inside the enclosure.  We were surprised to see that there were no race officials weighing the kit or checking the competitors footwear but we thought there would be an official weigh in point nearer the start.  I weighed my bergan and was relieved to see that I was exactly on the 35 pound limit (the weight can’t include the weight of any water or food that you wish to carry) and Bundes weight was up at about 38 pound.  I dropped the extra 3 pounds of sand that I’d brought from the car as they wouldn’t be needed and put the bananas and drinks into the bergan top pocket where it would be easy to retrieve as required.

In common with all other races I have ever ran, I had an urge to head for the toilets (or ablutions as they were signed) and joined the queue for the 2 – YEP THAT’S RIGHT 2 portaloos for nearly 1,200 runners – the 2nd piece of Armed Forces organisation that wasn’t up to scratch.  Thankfully, the race start was delayed until 10:15 from the advertised 10:00 as it gave me time to meet up with a couple of guys that I knew from Biritish Military Fitness before the star – Mark @discobelix and Pete @Cyberbod.

Bunde and I then joined near the back of the start and within a minute or 2 the non bergan runners were on their way and 3 minutes later so were we.  As is normal for large running events, our race numbers featured a chip which triggers your individual timing as you cross the start and finish as without this some runners at the back of races could have minutes added to their time – I ran the London Marathon back in 2005 and it took me some 10 – 15 minutes from  the gun going off to crossing the actual start line.  The course we were running is here.  have a look at it in another window as I intend to call out various parts of the run against the course.

We set off across a grassy field and due to the number of runners there was some stop/start or “wave effect” running for a while and I began thinking “Where can the hills be, it all looks very flat” and off we ran into the bowels of Catterick Garrison.  From what I recall, we ran on concrete/tarmac for a mile or two and there was an awesome sight as we hit the 1st very gentle upward slope of bergans running as far as the eye could see.  I took a photo with my iPhone but I missed the best moment when I was at the bottom of the hill and could see nothing but pack runners snaking up and over the hill..

We passed the mile marker in about 12:45 – much too slow and we tried not to panic and run like madmen.

The first cattle grid was at about 1 – 1.5 miles and a shout of “Grid” went up from the front and we all bunched up again.  The cattle grids were a nightmare as to slip here could result in a twisted (or worse) ankle and the end of your race so we negotiated them with care.

Once across the grid, back up to speed and we began to climb towards mile 2 (about 23.5 minutes so we were on the 11 minute pace with time still to make up from the 1st mile) – it was clear from this early point that a number of competitors had come along to walk the distance with the pack on (and fair play to them – it’s still a massive achievement) and we began to overtake and leave them behind along with a number of runners without packs!

At about 2.5 miles we began a descent round a large field and were startled to hear the sound of automatic gunfire coming from very close – there were a number of armed forces personnel out on exercise and firing blanks (we hoped) as we passed – Bunde thought it was applause from spectators but the nearest spectators were some 2 or 3 miles away.  While we were startled we noticed that the sheep in the same field were not disturbed in the slightest as they continued to feed.

The race course then changed from this point – from concrete/tarmac to loose stone/shale as we headed down “Tank Hill” – I guess it’s called Tank Hill as there are 2 huge tanks on the left hand side of the hill (Duh!) – it was a fairly steep down hill and with the loose footing it proved a challenge.  I’d been advised by my son "to “Smash it down the hills and on the flats” and to TAB (Tactical Advance to Battle) up the hills so I tried to relax and let gravity takes it’s course and before long I was racing to the bottom of the hill (every minute expecting to snap an ankle/knee/leg or my neck).  At 3 miles we were around 33 minutes so had caught up with the required pace.

More cattle grids (I reckon we must have crossed 20 or so on the course), a hop skip and a jump over a small stream and onto the 1st water station.  I dropped down to a fast walk at this point and drank a cup of water and ate a handful of Haribo sweets.  We ran on and came to the “Fish Pond Lake" which is a loop around a largish pond – as we ran in one direction, the faster runners were heading round the other side and were probably some 30 metres above us so there was a bit of a hill to come…..

We made it halfway round the pond and sure enough there was the hill – it was a short, sharp, steep hill comprised of a loose surface and at the top there was a course photographer recording the agony etched on our faces – I wasn’t captured on photo but my mate Bunde was.  After making it up this hill we came to what may have been the easiest part of the course – the downhill section leading up to “Lick Out Hill”.  As we ran fast down the hill we could see “Lick Out” winding it’s way off to our right and way above our heads – again it was a great sight to see so many pack runners streaming along the route but by this point I couldn’t be ar$ed to get my phone out of my pocket to take the picture.  5 miles was completed in about 55 mins so the pace was still right – no need to do anything different just needed to keep it going………

Lick Out Hill is a fairly smooth, long grinding hill, designed it seems with only 1 thought in mind – “I am going to break you” and it was a relief to make it to the top although I hadn’t been able to run the whole hill I managed to make sure that I kept on moving as fast as possible.

Miles 7 – 8 aren’t memorable to me other than I was conscious that we had slowed down coming up Lick and we attempted to make the time up on every downhill section and I became more than aware thagt I had a tasty blister on my right heel.  It was also along this stretch that I had Bunde get rid of the bananas that I’d carried for 7 miles – they must have weighed AT LEAST A POUND and I was never going to eat them…..

Around mile 8, the course holds a real treat in the shape of a hill known as the “Land Of Nod”.  A runner ahead of me asked the Para Marshall what’s the name of this hill “The Land Of Nod Sir” came back the delighted reply.  The Land of Nod starts with an extremely steep down hill, a small stream which we could jump across without getting wet, followed by possibly the steepest climb I’ve ever made (with or without a 35 pound pack on my back).  It was a real scramble up the shale hill and I was feeling light headed but pleased when I made it to the top although our pace had slowed somewhat.

Racing down the other side of the hill we came to a water section and plunged in – the 1st water trap was about ankle height and the 2nd about knee height – a runner went face first into the water as I crossed the 2nd pit and I tried to laugh but was too knackered.  Photos of me at this stage are a bit crap but here they are, and here and here.  My boots were filled with water and my feet were being caned as I started the final major climb up “Pussy Hill”.

Pussy Hill is out of the same mould as the Land of Nod i.e. loose surface and very extreme steepness.  At the top my legs were a bit like rubber and my feet felt like they were in ruins.  A check of the watch showed there was only some 9 minutes to go before we had missed the 1:50 challenge time and we set off to trudge our way to the finish.  About this time my left calf began to cramp up a bit and I had to take it steady for fear of a proper cramping session taking place – both sides of the route were lined with runners receiving massages from fellow competitors for their cramp but I managed to keep going.  Someone once told me "Pain is temporary but pride is for ever" – I agree with the sentiment but I reckon that guy had never taken part in the P Coy Challenge 😉

A small downhill and then a left hand bend and an incredibly young looking Para said “Only 200 metres to go Sir!  Best effort!”, “For real?” I replied “Yes Sir” he replied.  There was a small incline from there and we could hear the announcer at the finish so knew we were close but I still expected to climb this hill to be greeted by another.  As we climbed the hill a big hulking bloke was running close to me.  He was wearing a bergan and screaming at a woman who was also wearing a bergan “Come on you’re the leading woman – 2.5 minutes to the cut off time” and I thought to myself “I’m not having that” and kicked up the hill where I was greeted by the sight of the grassy field where we had started.  I decided that I still had a bit and “sprinted” for the line.  My 2 sisters and a couple of friends who had come along to see me run shouted my name but I didn’t hear them or see them as I was running with my eyes shut and teeth gritted.  I crossed the line and stopped my stopwatch – 1:49:12, 48 seconds under the qualifying time, we’d only gone and done it ! Woo Hoo!

My brain was totally oxygen starved and I couldn’t work out how we’d managed to complete the distance from the 9 mile to the finish seemingly in under 9 minutes and I suspect some wind up element with the mile markers (as do others discussing this on the net) but I don’t care as I beat the time by 48 seconds – JOB DONE!

We received a t-shirt, medal and a goody bag – no red beret ;-).

Removing my boots

 I unveiled a very raw burst blister on my right heel, a matching sized (but unburst) blister on my left heel, a smallish blister on the top of my right foot and a huge blood filled blister on the middle toe of my left foot – this toe lost it’s toe nail some 4 – 5 weeks ago when training (as did the toe next to it) and my lower back had been rubbed raw but I didn’t care as I had made it within the time.

If you don’t like photos of blisters and red raw backs look away now, if you do, read on…..

We hobbled back to the car and drove to McDonalds for a bite to eat before driving back home to a heroes welcome from Wor Pet.

After a short period of R&R I took a shower, which was agony on my back and feet (Dave Read calls this “The Shower Of Truth”) and headed for the pub for a debrief session with Bunde.

A few pints later and it was home to bed – absolutely knackered but very, very self satisfied :-).

The official times shows that my chip time was 1:49:16 and my time from the gun was 1:50:02 which means that it took me some 40 secs to cross the start line – another 3 seconds quicker and I would have been under the qualifying time on both counts.

Looking at the photos of the event I discovered that the big bloke yelling at the woman was wearing a bergan but wearing bloody trainers on his feet – what a con!  How can you sleep Nigel Browning of Lingwood Security Team 2 (race number 113) knowing that you cheated the event?  I mean come on, either do the challenge or don’t, you’re only fooling yourself etc. </rant> My chip time was some 30 seconds faster than yours anyway 😉

I’ve said over the last few months that this then the London marathon would probably be my Swan Song as far as competitive running is concerned but having done this now I think I might like to have another go – but then I think of the training and I shudder.

As I said at the start of this post – I may put you on to it or put you off.  I hope I’ve put you on as on the whole it has been a great experience.  Yes, the training was a pain in the ar$e (it literally was a pain in the back, legs and feet), yes I had to get up early on a weekend and grind out miles with a weighted pack which wasn’t fun, yes the day itself was tough – but if it hadn’t been like this it wouldn’t be a challenge and I wouldn’t have bothered doing it and I reckon you wouldn’t either.

As I type this the count down on @ http://www.paras10.com shows 361 days and counting to next years event – are you in?

To Be Continued?????

I ran the P Coy Challenge to raise money for Help for Heroes.  If you’d like to help, point your browser at http://www.justgiving.com/anthonypounder.  Thanks.

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5 Responses to “The P Coy Challenge – For Real”

  1. I dont know if you\’ve missed it but there is one of you at finish line too photo no. 405

  2. Bev – yeah seen it thanks. Not that bothered with any of the photos I think I\’ll just make do with these and the ones that you captured (which make me look fat!)

  3. nice no offence but id just like to say this was the easiest test ( for me personally) out of the acuall 7 events in 5 days that you have to do for p coy they should do the otterburn 20 miler now thats a challenge.

  4. plus we do a 10 miler in 1 .50 every friday before stand down lol

  5. Stephen, I\’m a SharePoint developer and I\’ve no wish to join the Paras ;-). I just wanted to try something different to another half marathon and raise a bit of cash for Help for Heroes. I know 2 or 3 current Paras and I\’m well aware what you have to do to get through – "Respect is due"


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