We all do it: book races because they sound great. Friends extol the virtues of this or that race and you go: “Ooh! I might try that.” I’m partly the “ooh” brigade and partly inner self-challenger. Let’s face it: we don’t choose easy races. Come to think of it, which races are easy? It’s called a race for a reason.
At the start of 2017 I selected a bunch of races with the “ooh” factor: a little uniqueness, a pinch of iconic status and a stirring of utter bonkersness. Why? 2017 was my third year of running and it was about success and targets: 50 parkruns (and go sub-22), 1,000miles, 13 half-marathons, a marathon and a last-minute ultra-marathon. I had more than 20 races on the calendar and a wife whose eyes rolled every time a new diary noti cation popped up. I wanted to run conversation- sparking races, races to write home about or tell the grandkids (future notion) about. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to chat about racing horses over 22 miles or multi-stage 100km events? The time, medal or T-shirt never came into the self-challenge or the “ooh” factor booking process.
I just wanted to be able to say: “I did it!” The five events I remember here are all out of the ordinary and all appealed to me in different ways.
Two friends were discussing the Hebden Challenge on Twitter; within 15 minutes I was booked. Round Shef eld Run was similar – booked in less than ve minutes. Man v Horse just screamed “iconic race”. Race to the Stones had been on my radar, the timings worked and it’s a race of high standing with great support. Bacchus Half was partly “ooh” … and the thought of running about dressed as a unicorn. Would I compete in each of these races again? Wholeheartedly “yes”, and for speci c reasons. Hebden has a 22-mile option… even grittier. I was injured during Round Shef eld Run so would look to complete it on healthier legs. MvH is 40 years old in 2019… need I say more? RTTS has a one-day option, as if the race wasn’t hard enough. With Bacchus, the fancy dress options are limitless.
My 2017 goal was to get serious with my running but ensure it wasn’t so pressured that I’d lose my mojo by August. By October I had already hit 800 miles out of my proposed 1,000. I managed a sub-22 parkrun (20m59s) and completed more than 10 half marathons. The ultra-marathon box is ticked, and I will do more because it’s such an amazing journey… maybe not 100km, though. The marathon, an of cial 26.2, happened in December, an extremely tough event around a tank training ground, dressed as tank commanders.
Despite my middling years, this is the start of a much longer journey. I have my first international marathon booked in April, plus I have enough points to set the ball rolling for consideration of entry into the OCC at the UTMB. It’s all about the hills.
Hebden Challenge: 15 miles, 4h08m30s
The shorter 15-mile “fun-run” (just the 4,000ft of ascent) awaits me and around 399 other suitably garbed runners and walkers. The more serious bunch can have their extra seven miles; lurgy and Christmas have curtailed my training leaving me short on miles in my legs.
You only have to think Yorkshire and for some a nose bleed ensues. It ain’t flat like yer cap. Plus I had no plans to go off whippet-style. It’s hilly, neither gentle nor rolling, but steep, rate steep. The first ascent hit within two miles and it brought even the hardiest of runners to a slow walk. Britain in winter doesn’t boast many clear days; today wasn’t one of them. This made the views on top even grittier.
Inner grit was the order of the day. Having never run more than 13.1 miles, I planned to pace the 15 miles steadily and with less of a gung-ho attitude than I’d have in a road race. Yet you have to be sharp about keeping an eye on both the runners in front of you and your map, as the route is self-guided. Fall off the back without a clue of how to map-read, you’re in for a long day in the hills.
The route climbed out of Hebden on this cold and damp January morning. At times the rain came down, and if it wasn’t coming down it was going across, making the initial few miles hard going. Once you got into your stride the key was to keep your eye on your footing, as the terrain was far from level. Occasionally you’d glance up to keep the other eye on the landscape – despite the weather and the cloud, the views were incredible. One minute you were on a rocky path with water rushing down smooth Yorkshire gritstone, the next you could be looking out over open moorland, with the Pennine Way stretching to the horizon. The differing vistas kept you alert, despite the 5am start for pre-race fuelling.
This was one of those races best described as a three-course meal with a run between each course. Food consisted of sandwiches heavy with beef dripping or a solid ploughman’s, washed down with mugs of tea, lots of proper Yorkshire tea. Cakes piled up high, with a crowning glory of Stollen – this being the firm favourite. If you weren’t fast you were last, with all the Stollen being snapped up by the early arrivals.
This is a race lled with glory. You’ll finish it feeling stuffed to the gills. If you could snap it in half like a stick of rock, it would have a fissure of gritstone running right through the middle, spelling the words “Made in Yorkshire”.
Man v Horse: 23 miles, 4h32m52s
Looking for an event with a hook? Here it is! Man v Horse is an iconic race, now in its 38th year, pitting human against horse against hill. That’s 600 humans against 60 horses against 5,000ft up and 5,000ft down. Have I mentioned the mud?
Llanwrtyd Wells claims to be Britain’s smallest town. The Neuadd Arms Hotel acts as the focal point and start of MvH. Come Saturday morning the small indiscreet area in front of the pub is awash with around 1,000 people. Some are here to see runners off; the remainder are there to be seen off! I’m in the latter part of the equation and for the first time in many years I have butterflies in my stomach. I’ve been excited about this race since the moment I booked it.
The baying crowd is fed a glimpse of the horses as they file up the road; boos and hisses are thrown their way from the runners. It’s tradition and it’s fun. The mayor addresses details some gratifying words, the sponsor says their bit, the rules are read aloud and duly corrected by the stalwarts in the crowd. An injured MvH race veteran counts us down. Crap! This is it, we’re off! I’ve never raced 23 miles before.
We amble down the road; Salomon Speedcross 4s aren’t made for wet asphalt, but this is where we’re at. The road is rolling away under my feet to become a narrow track, slowly edging upwards, when I notice the time. It is 11.15. I mention to those around me that the horses have been “released” (runners are given a 15-minute head start) then around a couple of minutes later there is a holler from behind: “HORSE!” I turn to see the first beast cantering up the slope, closely followed by around six other horses. It was magnificent; you wouldn’t get this on a city 10km.
So I focus on the job in hand, moving forward reasonably slowly. Why? Simply, if you’re not going down, you’re going up and generally it’s steep. At mile four we come to a standstill; there’s a narrow downhill section over grass, leading across a thin line of water into an even narrower track leading back up a slope, with a mud stream owing down it. Once you’ve traversed this, you’re into a half mile section of trail. Well, it resembled an OCR… we wade, knee-deep in places through a Welsh jungle. This is the best!
From here the route undulates over road, track, fell, forest and what feels like a mountain. Horses pass you by with friendly shouts from the riders of “Mornin’” “Afternoon”, or a simple “well done”. On the odd occasion we pass a horse that’s slowed up because of the difficult terrain. Now I’m not a horsey person, but to see these beasts up close and working this hard exemplifies what the horse is going through; this race is tough for everyone. Riders must stop at the halfway point for a vet check – this is mostly for the horse, not the rider!
The on-course camaraderie is first-rate. I’ve run road races where you might as well be the only person on the course. Every time you pass another runner there’s a shout of “Well done, buddy” or “Come on… it’s just a short hill compared to that last one.” I play yo-yo was one particular runner: he’d overtake me, then I’d overtake him and so on. We walked one of the final hills and enjoyed banter about running, life and the universe.
Finish line crossed, I was elated, and I’d beaten at least one horse. In fact, I’d beaten 22 horses in a shade over four-and-a-half hours. Time is irrelevant on an event like this; it’s about being part of the race, with runners who want an adventure, on a course that tests human resilience and in conditions that measure mental attitude. I’d done it. I had finally completed a race that had been at the forefront of my mind for quite some time.
Round Sheffield Run: 20km, 2h45m38s
And now for something a bit different: a 20km course with breaks. Sounds a doddle… 11 little mini-parkruns that you bolt through, then rest as you transfer to the next stage. The word on Twitter was that Round Sheffield Run would sell out before the proverbial hot cakes. I could get more cakes tomorrow and something about this race caught my attention. A 20km course split into 11 bite-sized chunks, the longest being 2.8km, the nal sprint section just 400m. I’m having me some of this.
Now, there’s a common theme among my choice of races: hills. Flat is boring; we do at in our sleep – why do it when running? The race follows the Round Sheffield Walk: a section of greenery owing through the city, something I never knew existed. We could have been in the Peak District, as we passed a small brook billowing over mossy rocks amid sun-dappled glades. Yes, I did say this was Sheffield, as famous for its hills as it once was for steel. The slopes are tough, a total of 1,700ft ascent and descent over the 20km. The scenery does help to distract from the pain, but only marginally.
So 11 sections of varying distance, with walk breaks in between each section and two feed stations. The simple idea is that you hammer the race sections and have a timed break to recover in between. Each break varies from four minutes to 15 minutes, depending on their distance apart or if they have nosh. The rest sections are great – not for the actual rest, but to have a chat with fellow runners. It’s a great way to boost morale and cajole some camaraderie. A big tick to the organisers.
The route is an anti-clockwise circuit of the city, 90% on trail, which all adds to the atmosphere. Sheffield isn’t the prettiest city, but at about mile 10 you emerge into a park which offers an IMAX-esque view; it’s very impressive and a great opportunity for runners to stop for an obligatory group selfie.
I can’t think of any other race with this aspect of run-break-run. It’s energising. It’s thought-provoking. It’s different. It’s also tough.
Race to the Stones: 100km, over two days 7h08m39s/6h50m44s
Every step I’ve taken during the past three years has led to this point. Nerves aren’t even apparent; I’m purely focused on a number: 100. Well… 100,000. The number of metres between where I am and where I intend to be.
So the first step was taken into a day of mostly pouring rain. I don’t mind the rain, but not for the best part of six hours, especially after just changing your socks at the second checkpoint to then run through the wettest field known to man. I wasn’t going to let this dampen my spirits. Chin up, on we trudge. The route follows The Ridgeway, west along an ancient chalk path. It goes up, it goes down, it goes around towns, it goes through woodland, and it goes on for a very long way. There are nine very well-stocked checkpoints. I think some people just came for the food. It’s one of those races that when you get home and unpack your kit, you find what resembles a tuck shop in your running pack. Items gathered along the way with dutiful intentions of being eaten but mostly forgotten, melted or squashed.
This race taught me inner strength and pure resilience. How to push on with determination and significant pain in both knees. It also taught me not to forget to fill up my water bladder at a checkpoint… with a resulting chase around a village trying to find someone at home on the sleepiest of July Sunday mornings. I found a village hall, doffed my cap and begged for “more”. Much to my surprise I was given a cup of water; this person obviously hadn’t run an ultra-marathon. I was later shown the water fountain with ice cold water. Every cloud…
For two days I lived on pasta, electrolyte, cola, watermelon, salted peanuts and protein balls. I lived on the hope of reaching those Stones by ambling and not racing to the coveted finish line. I invested time with my thoughts, my friends’ banter and other people’s stories about why they’d embarked on the arduous yet rewarding journey. If I said any one part of this journey was easy I’d be lying, it was the single most difficult outpouring of sweat I’ve ever accomplished. At 60km my knees started to give up; by 80km I was running through gritted teeth. But I look back with fond memories of the journey, and how I got to the finish line and hugged and thanked the race director for giving us such an epic race.
Bacchus half-marathon: 13.1miles, 3h54m50s
Where do I start with this one? OK, who fancies a half-marathon (or marathon) where you get drunk and race in fancy dress? Me! Bacchus was the Roman god of grapes (and a few other things including general naughtiness) and the majority of runners “praise” him by getting into their fancy dress out ts before the start of the race and into a bottle of red at 9.30am.
It’s a big bag of bonkers fun. Some take it seriously; most are here for the wine and the giggles. You start within Denbies Wine Estate (England’s largest vineyard) and slowly drift out into the rolling Surrey countryside. You encounter animals, Disney princesses, Spartans and gun-slinging cowboys as well as the commonly sighted two-legged bunch of grapes. We went as unicorns and trotted from wine station to wine station in a sublime attempt to look gloriously ridiculous. I can report that we completed the task wholeheartedly.
As much time is spent taking selfies as it is spent running (hence why we took nearly four hours to complete the course). There were around a dozen unicorns in our group, which fragmented into two: one half galloped off while the second group gently cantered around the course. The whole race atmosphere is stupendous with live bands, a hog roast, sloshed runners, laughter and booze. I still can’t believe it took us nearly four hours to complete 13.1 miles.
Jason Randall thinks that trail running signifies pure running; the muddier, hillier, more scenic the better! Fuelled by peanut butter and jam sandwiches. @outrunninghills