It’s not uncommon for race organisers to use a smattering of hyperbole when naming races – the Pewsey Vale Running Club can’t be accused of that when naming their race The Terminator. Much like Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin.
Since running the Gloucester Half Marathon I have been trying to ease back into running; trying not to make my calf strain angry again – meaning I haven’t managed to run more than 10 kilometres a week, split into a couple of runs.
After what feels like a whole a day in the car Tom and I arrive at his sister Claire’s house in the dark – so I have no idea what is in store for me. The following morning (which is race day) is a relaxed affair, the race doesn’t start until half ten and starts a few minutes down the road. It was a very strange feeling – I’m used to having to drag myself up at an ungodly hour to force down a bowl of porridge. Once we get to the start the stress free pre-race continues. No mad stress to pick up our race numbers, no queue for the toilet longer than the actual race and no trying to squeeze 400 runners through a single door. If only more pre-race experiences were like this. Claire, Tom and I make our way to the start line, and after some mumbling – which I assume is the race brief – we are off.
The first kilometre or so is quite busy and trying to find any kind of rhythm is a bit tricky. We part ways and re-join each other during this first kilometre up until the final stretch of road before we hit the trail. As we climb we separate to pass a group in the middle of the road, as we regroup and turn onto the trail Claire isn’t quite with us, and like the true gentlemen we are we carry on without her.
The first section of the race is undulating with no big hills, but certainly enough to tenderise the legs, and if you go too hard here there is certainly enough to it to make you suffer later. As much as I would like to say how the early kilometres flew by effortlessly and without incident, I can’t. The first 5 kilometres feel good, maybe too good – and I begin to feel it bite. Then I encountered The Bog.
As I crossed a stream I slipped on the bank, and as I fell into the stream I instinctively grabbed out behind me – unfortunately grabbing a huge fucking thistle. I wade through the stream and once out I begin to remove what feels like organic hypodermic needles from my hand. Next thing I know I feel the ground beneath me give a little. Before I have time to process what is happening my left leg has swung past my right and I’m balls deep in the infamous bog.
There’s not much I can do. Wriggling my feet to try to free them doesn’t help, I’m stuck. As Tom turns I throw him the couple of gels I am holding, and then suffer the indignity of being dragged from the bog by a couple of fellow runners – without whom I may still be in that bog.
Once free from a fate befitting the end of the dinosaurs, Tom and I continue to run together but now my legs feel unbelievably heavy, and I can’t help but hope it’s just a short lived bog related side effect. We run along the edge of a field for a while and the going feels tough and the grassy tufts along the edge of the field doesn’t help with this one bit. I later discover Tom suffered along this stretch too, so maybe it wasn’t just bog related side effects.
It takes a couple of kilometres for our pace to get back to where it was before we encountered the bog, but almost as soon as we get back to that pace we hit the bottom of the first proper test. The trail we are on begins to climb – gently at first. Gradually the gradient begins to rise as the trail closes in. After a while, the hill begins to become a slog. I slowly reel in a group in front of me, but unable to pass them I sit in at the back where I struggle to run at their speed – so I walked for a moment before starting to run and catch them again. This happens once more before the trail opens up and I assume we are at the top – how wrong can someone be? Just as we get to the opening I notice other runners scrambling up the side of the hill on all fours. I feel my heart – which is already racing – drop into my trail shoes.
A couple of deep breathes and away we go, scrambling up this grass covered wall. It feels like we take one step forward and several back again, but eventually we top out. At the top we take a hard right and continue to climb – much more gradually – before we finally begin to descend. Then the sickener, that’s not the top. After a slight drop the climbing starts again. This time there’s no gully, no closed in trail. It’s open and straight and you can see the top from a long way away. It’s never steep, but after the climbing thus far and the relief of thinking you’re at the top, it’s a grind – and the car which is parked at the top doesn’t get closer nearly as quickly as it should.
Once at the top I have to walk a few paces to let the feeling return to my legs before beginning the descent, but I’m half way down before they feel like they still contain bones. Once at the bottom we continue across a field and onto a hard packed track. My legs feel relatively normal for a while, but the early race exuberance is beginning to tell. The hard packed trail continues pretty much to the foot of the next quad shredding hill. At first it feels nice to stop and walk as we take on the next grassy colossus, but before long the calves are screaming – and screaming far loader than they ever do when running. Once finally at the top – calves screaming and lungs hanging out somewhere near my knees – we turn right, passing through a gate, and contour along the ridge gradually losing altitude before descending quicker as we approach the bottom.
It’s not far between the bottom of this hill and the next, and what makes it so mentally tough is that you know you are running up and down the same side of an escarpment – almost as damaging as it was to the legs. This is the slowest section of the whole race as the easy flowing early kilometres feel a long time ago. The climb might as well have been in the Annapurna Massif as I struggled to put one foot in front of the other while gravity dragged back at every extra kilo I’m carrying (it is widely known amongst chubbier runners that extra kilos count as double). Finally, the top is in sight and we pass through a gate and run along the top of the escarpment before gradually dropping back down to the bottom. As we passed through the gate Tom and I were separated by a couple of runners and I hear the marshal at the top say “only one small hill” left; hear one small hill, expect the Matterhorn. The trail along the top of the escarpment is a joy as it winds, dips and climbs – it’s very reminiscing of sections of the SW coastal path. Just as we begin to descend properly I catch back up with Tom. The final climb is pretty much at the foot of the previous climb.
Stopping us in our tracks is a stretch of tickertape running up the escarpment, and then we noticed runners coming down the other side of it. Straight up and back down it is then – both mentally and physically it was a brute. I later discovered that the fencing we went around where the tape ended housed the white horse, but at the top all I could see was my feet and spots.
By now the down hill is almost as hideous as the climbing – just a different kind of hideous. At the bottom we follow a straight gravely track with nothing but a stile to negotiate (which Tom annoyingly just vaults over). Along this stretch I need to stop to attend to a stitch – a few deep breathes and a stretch and I get going again. Tom is about 20 metres head by this point, and I concentrate on trying to reel him in again; I seem to have spent a big chunk of this race watching Tom slip away, before trying to reel him back in again. I finally catch him as we reach the road, and try to hang on as we make our way back into Pewsey – including a little detour off the road to drop down through a stream and back up to the road.
At this point we are in a group of four, and as we turn off the road on to a trail up past a church a guy in our group stops to walk. Even though there is room to pass, I can’t run past him and walk too. It’s almost as though him walking somehow gives me permission to do the same. Tom doesn’t walk, he just runs off. The path runs continues along the bottom of a stretch of gardens. A marshal shouts “800 metres to go”. 800 metres, I can do that, time to dig deeper. I can still see Tom ahead and although he isn’t getting any closer, he isn’t getting further away either. At this point I fully expect Claire to come flying past me and reel Tom in before the finish line – making me pay for going too hard as the start. I manage to keep running around the final bend and cross the finish line; just about managing to squeeze in inside 2 hours (in an official time of 1:59:11) – which apparently was the cut to remain considered a runner. A few minutes later Claire comes into view, with barely a speck of mud on her and looking utterly in control.
At this point I am contractility obliged to mention that Tom beat me by a whole 40 seconds (which is possibly the biggest winning margin between us). Initially he claimed it was a hollow victory – under the impression I could have beaten him; this was defiantly not the case – even if I had bionic legs. Hopefully that’s his ego suitably massaged.