This Saturday I did my first ever competitive off-road running race, a little event called HellRunner down at Longmoor Army Camp. For the un-initiated, trail running is a form of hardcore cross-country. Not only do you get the footpaths and small ditches, you also get steep climbs, water obstacles and other general things that more sane people will simply walk round.
HellRunner is a great introduction to this form of running, as in benefits from the organisation of a larger road-race, and offers the terrain, but within a slightly more controlled environment than simply dropping you on a mountain side and setting out a line of flags.
My day started at 7am, to give me time to munch down breakfast, pack up my running gear and hop on Matilda for the ride down to Longmoor (about halfway between Reading and Portsmouth). The weather initially looked atrocious, with heavy fog and really low temperatures...some of the worst weather to run in, and also fairly unpleasant for biking. I'd factored in plenty of time to get down there, as there were several issues with traffic last year, and I'm also notorious for getting lost. Both of these issues occured, as I took a wrong turning in Alton, giving me a ten mile bonus distance, coupled with a long queue getting into the Army Camp. All told I got to the start area ten minutes before the scheduled start time, so it was a hurried change into my kit, before throwing my overly large kit bag into the (thankfully queueless) storage tent. On the plus side the weather had sorted itself out, and for once gone the right way, with sunshine, no breeze and clear skies... While I was doing a quick stretch up it was announced that the start would be delayed by ten minutes to allow some stragglers to arrive, so fortunately I ended up having plenty of time to get the blood flowing in my legs before the off.
As I said, I've never done any off-road running before, and really had no idea what to expect. I knew the course was between 10 and 12 miles long (with most people suggesting it was closer to the former), and included a bog crossing, some water crossings, as well as several steeps hills and some sand-dunes (cheeringly branded the Hills of Hell). My only real preparation was making sure I had some decent trail-running shoes, rather than my normal "slick" running trainers. I'd also heeded advice and not worn a cotton t-shirt (which would have soaked up the water and gained a few kilos in weight), instead opting for a fancy training one, and a pair of lycra shorts (same reason, I knew I was going to get wet, so the less that could stay with me the better). I set myself about a third of the way down the field, based on the fact that in previous road races I'd come in fairly high up.
The first mile of so was reasonably flat, and I took the opportunity to move up the field to get a bit more space. We were running down tracks through a forest, and at this point tyre ruts and ankle deep puddles were our biggest challenges. I quickly gained a false sense of security, and stupidly thought that this might turn out to be quite easy...
...and then the hills started. The first couple hit me as a bit of a novelty, so I cheerfully stamped my way up them. Most were about 20-30 metres in length, starting at about 45' and getting steeper, with rocky or sandy footing. very quickly it became obvious that this was going to be the flavour for the next few miles, as the course took us up and down several slopes relentlessly, and I quickly had all the energy sapped from my legs. About 30 minutes in I changed tactics, and began walking the hills (which was almost as quick as running them anyway) and saving my energy to keep a good pace on the flats, which were fluctuating between dirt vehicle tracks and sandy areas, and using this I found myself passing the water stop (allegedly at about halfway, but I have my suspicions) at about 38 minutes. I was tired, and my legs ached at this point, but I was generally feeling good, and the mood of the runners was very high (a general thing to note was that unlike a road race no-one was wearing headphones...the pace was changing so often that you had no hope of running to music anyway...one of the upshots of this was that there was a bit of banter between runners, and generally a good mood pervailed...for example a lot of people tried to run round the flooded tyre ruts, but once you'd gone in one and your shoes were soaked there was little point wasting the time, so there were some impressive splashful overtaking moves...I did a few, then almost came a cropper as I went into one, only to go knee-deep halfway through...I heard a couple of smirks and cheers behind me, and some quickly changed directions).
There were some more hills after the water stop, including a couple of really fierce descents down rocky cuttings and sand-on-rock areas...I'm truely grateful to all the people who recommended getting some grippy shoes, as I would never have stayed upright without them. The ground levelled out a bit, and headed back into the forest at about the 7 mile point to bring us to one of the famous bits of the HellRunner courses...the Bogs of Doom! This consisted of a 20-25 metre pit flooded with cold, stinking liquid mud. You also get the lions share of the spectators round this area, and you are cheered in. The depth easily reaches your waist and beyond, and its cold, and the footing is uneven, covered in tree roots. That said I had a huge grin on my face as I waded my way through, and when the lad next to me stumbled I asked him not to go under, as I really didn't want to go down after him. We clambered out the other side, and you could feel the blood rushing from your legs. I decided that there was no point hanging around, and the best way of warming them up was to get the pace up again, so I bit the bullet and headed off again towards the next section, which consisted of some (wait for it) hills, combined with a bit more forest running. In no time at all my legs were back at full speed, if a little darker from the gunk.
About a mile later came the next big feature...this time a water crossing of about 30 metres...we had to head down a steep bank, into the water (which started at waist deep, and rose to about chest level), before clambering out, back up the other side, and back into the forest. At this point we were heading directly for the arena, and the car park was next to us, and you had the feeling we were nearing the end, so the strides lengthen, and you start to squeeze every last bit out...
...so when the course turned and took us into a rather brutal sand dunes section you could see shoulders sinking...we'd all been running for over an hour at this point, and for "club" standard runners (which is the sort of level I tend to finish at) this is where fatigue really kicks in. Sand is a bastard of a surface to run on, and you could see the course winding up and down hills in the distance. I clambered over them as best I could (which wasn't great, but by that point most people I was running with were walking the ups as well) and then forced myself back to pace as I left the area and headed back into the forest, and another water crossing, this time in the form of a flooded path which came to just below waist level. Now we were definitely heading for the finish, so I gritted my teeth, lengthened my stride and tried to burn out what I had left for the finish, which was about half a mile away over some thankfully flattish (by now my definition of flat had changed quite considerably) forest, so I was able to pick up a few places at the end, before finally crossing the finish line in a chip time (time between crossing the start line and finish line) of 1 hour, 27 minutes and 40 seconds, which placed me 229th out of about 2,500 entrants. My target was under 1 hour and 30 minutes, so I was utterly chuffed with that.
As a race I really enjoyed it...there was a very different atmosphere to road running, which is very much about maintaining a good pace for the entirety of it, no real talk between competitors once the race is underway, and most people (myself included) using music and headphones as a way of controlling their pace. More than once as I strugged to the top of a hill I was encouraged on by other runners, and during the big obstacles there was a lot of laughing, comments regarding just how cold your testicles were right then, while also pointing out that after all that mud a good wash was just what we needed. I cleaned about half a metric ton of crap out of my kit when I got home, and I don't think the t-shirt will ever be useable again, despite 2 washes already. However, I've signed myself up for another trail run in a months time, and I may have convinced a couple of other people to get in on the act too, as a break from road running.
Great day, and really glad that I did it...I'll certainly be heading back there for next years, and now I have a time to beat as well!