Not quite sure how I found myself entering a trail race in Hamsterley Forest a week before my target 10k, other than it seemed like a good idea at the time. And I had company. Sally, who is normally my boxercise partner at they gym suggested it. And I thought – 12k, forest trails, different scenery, that’ll be nice.
But it was a real toughie for a flat road runner like me. As we picked up our race numbers someone asked about the course. “It starts up, up up, and then you go across the moors – it’s a bit muddy and exposed up there, then it’s flat for a bit and down through the stream, back on yourself up the hill and down to the finish.”
A nice low key start, around 50 runners assembled, and we’re warned about the frogspawn. What? I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Off along the nice forest trail and up the first series of long slow inclines. Little steps, little steps I say to myself. Take it easy, it’ll smooth out in a while and then you can get into your stride. Only it never really does.
The first two inclines are the only ones I genuinely try to run. Less than a kilometre in I get a sharp pain in my right shoulder. The wind is cutting through like a knife and aggravates a sore spot. I wince and everything tenses, hamstrings and glutes, and I’ve barely even started.
I allow myself a walk up the next incline, the wind in my face, telling myself to relax, there’s no pressure here. At the top of the next incline are a couple of marshalls on bikes. And for a moment, I seriously think about telling them I’m dropping out. But it feels like I’ve barely been running for ten minutes. It’s too early to quit.
By now everyone’s passed me. I always wondered what it would feel like to be back of the pack, and it’s curiously liberating. Near the top of the next incline, I spot a photographer. ‘Can’t let you take me walking’, I shout and hit a big grin as I pick up my feet again.
The ground opens up onto the moors and the wind acts like a resistance band, pushing me backwards, snatching my breath away. It’s my enemy here. I feel small and fragile in its presence. Empty and lacking substance.
A man runs past with his dog. He’s not racing, but I’m happy to see him. I’m not alone up here. I look back and realise there are still a few stragglers behind me. I determine not to let anyone else pass me if I can help it.
Although the moorland is vast and wide, a patchwork of purple bracken, my view narrows to the slender path, barely a foot’s width through the undergrowth. Sly stones and muddy patches catch my feet unawares. I plough through the puddles, figuring I’m going to get my feet wet at some time, so may as well get used to it, but after stumbling in up to my knees and nearly falling head first, I begin to tread more gingerly. At this point I decide that fell running’s probably not for me.
The ground has flattened out a little, but still I cannot run in my usual style. There are rocks and slippery patches, thorny undergrowth and swampy ground to catch me unawares. I am on my own in this wild landscape and dark thoughts creep in. The windchill makes it cold and I’m not moving that quickly. If I hurt myself it could all go wrong very quickly. I have a race next week and am bridesmaid for my sister’s wedding the week after. I stumble on like a Barbie doll.
Somewhere over the top I lose sight of the runners ahead and the route isn’t clear. Not to me, anyway. I slow down, stop, look for markers, eat some dried mango. There’s some black and white tape ahead in the direction that feels right, but my lack of geographical nous is legendary and I don’t trust myself. I walk back towards the runners approaching. At least if we’re lost, we’re lost together.
A couple of hundred yards on there’s more tape and clear footprints in the soft ground. We skip around the frogspawn and plough on. Now I have company, and the route starts to take a downward slant, the dark thoughts disappear and I begin to run through the tussocky grass with a sense of freedom and childishness. Down the hills, feet just keeping me under control.
I splash through the river, expecting it to cover my trainers. But once again I’m in up to my knees. The cold is a pleasant relief to these pounded feet and I laugh as the water drains away.
This is more like it. Wide forest paths through the trees. I meet up with Flip and a South African runner called John and enjoy a couple of downhills. We walk the uphills, but I don’t feel such a failure for giving into them any more. My hamstrings and glutes tighten and I say hello to that familiar, but unwelcome ITB twinge.
But we talk about running and keep each other moving. And any thoughts of not finishing this have been forgotten. A glorious flat forest path opens up, yellow in the sunlight, and now I can run, stretch out and let my feet fly. Flip gallantly says ‘ladies first’ and I go. Running at last.
All too soon it’s over. We’re back round to the start and the race is complete. I recover in no time, barely out of breath. Just ready to stretch, find my mate Sally and get a welcome rub down to ease this tension in my thighs.
And of course, warm and full of flapjack in the car, it doesn’t seem too bad. Quite enjoyable really. Nice countryside and a change of scenery.
But it was hard at first, really tough. It took me out of my comfort zone and made me realise how much I take for granted running on roads and easy trails. I didn’t like my steps feeling small and tight. I didn’t like the uncertainty of where to place my feet. If I’d have known how I’d get to feel for the second part of the race, I’d have enjoyed the first part much more.
But I feel like I’ve payed my dues. I battled some mental demons and got my reward of some wonderful carefree running moments. I just don’t think I’ll be taking up cross country anytime soon. I’m too much of a softie.
11.75km in 1hr 21 mins
12. 3.43 (0.75km)