You see, this is what happens.
(As Basil Fawlty might say: “This is typical. Absolutely typical.”)
I’d just gone and got myself all worked up about how much I love road-running, and then I go and enter a trail race.
So what happened?
Revising My Long-Term Goals
As you may know, I love to push myself in my running. This could be pushing myself to run faster than I have before, or by running further than I have before.
My long-term goal had been to work up to crazy ultra distances, and eventually the Marathon des Sables. But I’d been wondering for a while whether this was right for me. I’d been leaning toward specialising in road-running and speedwork, and revising my long-term goals away from ultras (I’ll post more about this separately).
And then, just as I was about to declare (tweet) this specialism, and had just hit upon the idea that this might make a rather good subject for a blog post, possibly even a controversial one, fellow UKRunChat buddy Jake (enthusiastic trail runner), whom I’d met at the Robin Hood Marathon in 2015, got in touch. He’d been doggedly trying to organise a meetup with myself and David since Robin Hood without success – dates kept clashing with other races. He’d found another race, the Dukeries 10, by HoboPace events, which didn’t clash with anything else I had planned, so I was keen to meet up. (The three of us are also on a joint quest in 2016 to go sub-20 at 5k, sub-40 at 10k and sub-90 at HM).
But the Dukeries 10 was a trail race.
And so, at short notice, I found myself entering – sharp intake of breath, stands back in amazement – a trail race…
Actually, once I was used to the idea, I enjoyed getting stuck into the prep. I’d bought a new Garmin, and this would be a chance to try it out. I also had to buy, of all things, trail shoes.
I mean… trail shoes.
Great big clod-hopping things, with chunky grip that could rip the hide off a hippopotamus. Not lovely sleek zero-drop racing flats.
However, I enjoyed the process of researching them, and headed to Birmingham Runner – always knowledgeable and friendly. I tried on a few different pairs and in the end went for Inov8 MudClaw 265s, which felt more supportive than the Inov8 Roclites I also tried.
(I assume that at this point there are beardy trail-running types nodding sagely and approving of my choice; either that or shaking their heads in despair while drawing on their arcane knowledge of the right types of shoes for twenty-seven different types of scree.)
Alright, I admit it: buying new shoes was fun. I’ve been running for so long that it’s very much a known process. Apart from the zero-drop Altras that I switched to late last year, I know which shoes are best for me and have been using the same make and model for years. No input needed, no gait checks – just re-buying the shoes I know.
A week or so prior to Dukeries, I had a major scare when I injured my left ankle (again, I’ll blog more about this in a separate post). If I hadn’t had Dukeries I would have rested that weekend. Instead I relied on my usual cure-all of severely tight ankle strapping and taping to get me through.
In the couple of weeks prior to the event the organiser/s emailed a couple of times, with the route and other details. There was a very friendly feel, and a sense of the genuine enthusiast and real personal involvement – and they included a detailed level of helpful information. I was impressed.
The detail that caught mine and Jake’s attention was the part that noted there’d been localised flooding. The course was mostly fine, apart from one fifty-foot section which was flooded to knee-deep level. Which, apparently, was fine.
Trail shoes… running through fifty feet of knee-deep flooding… was this really me?
I enjoy going on the road, and once again set off early on Saturday morning (trail races are often on Saturdays rather than Sundays, apparently) into the pitch black darkness of another winter’s morning. The journey itself was as atmospheric as ever: there’s just something about setting off in the dark and watching dawn break.
The Dukeries 10 was in a place called Walesby in Nottinghamshire. We were lucky with the weather, as the rain that had been forecast all week held off. Instead, the countryside emerged into pale early morning winter sunshine.
Arriving at the social club which was the race HQ, the level of organisation was once again impressive. Plenty of signs, plenty of marshals directing me into place, plenty of other runners – and also an impressive array of beards. Everyone seemed to have one; I felt as though I was in Viking country. As a road-running ‘specialist’ and trail-running rookie I already felt conspicuous; now I was afraid my short, trimmed, highly metropolitan(!) beard would single me out even further.
The first job was to get my left ankle strapped as tightly as I could. With this done, I became aware that, as well as the beards, everyone seemed to be wearing a variety of technical layers that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an all-weather hiking expedition, plus full-length running tights. I almost always only wear a single layer and shorts – with the objective of being as light and unrestricted as possible for speed. Yet despite the sunshine the morning was freezing cold, and I began to doubt myself. I’m usually very confident in my own abilities, and also my own race prep. But this was my first trail race. What did everyone else know that I didn’t? I gave in and put on the spare running tee I’d brought with me as a second layer.
From there, I headed into the social club to race registration, picked up my number, and then met up with Jake and a couple of his fellow Witham Runners club-mates.
The race organiser, a guy called Ronnie (another impressive Viking beard), stepped up onto the small stage in the hall to give the pre-race briefing. It turned out to be pretty much his event that he’d organised, and it was him that had sent the emails I mentioned earlier. That sense of enthusiasm and personal involvement was very much in evidence, and there was a tangible sense of contributing to a friendly, happy event.
It was also the most hilarious pre-race briefing I’ve ever attended. Honest, up-front and plenty of belly-laughs, the highlight was the instructions regarding road crossings: “There are three road crossings on the course, and, yep, they’re all pretty dangerous.” And that was it. No hand-holding, no health and safety instructions, just a sense that we’re all grown-ups, please try not to get yourself killed on the crossings or we probably won’t be able to hold the race again next year.
You just don’t get this at major road-races.
Heading out to the start, chatting with Jake and sorting out my new Garmin for its first race, I could feel the atmosphere building. We were looking to run somewhere around eight-minute miles, or just under, so a pretty easy pace. And the race was only 10.8 miles, pretty short. But with my ankle at only 50%-60%, and severely curtailed running the preceding week because of it, I’d rarely felt so under-prepared.
We lined up at the start, a little way off the front, which was in itself unusual for me. There was a lot of howling and barking of excited dogs – there were a number of ‘cani-cross’ runners who were running with their dogs – which added to the atmosphere. Rob, the race organiser, shouted a countdown, and then we were off.
At first the feeling was familiar, settling into a rhythm during the first few hundred yards. But everything else was strange. The pace was slow, my feet were clumping along in my trail shoes, and instead of running past cheering crowds, barriers and banners, we headed off along a farm track.
At least my ankle was holding up. But quite where the myth – for I shall call it that – of trail running being easier on legs and joints comes from, I’ve no idea. We turned off the farm track onto a muddy grass path between two hedgerows, and the ground was uneven with divots, clumps of grass, and other rutted tracks. My gimpy ankle was being rolled one way then the other, and I had to watch my footing very carefully.
Still, Jake and I were able to talk as we ran. And, of course, we were running into the countryside. I began to enjoy myself. It was, of course, sheer pleasure to be out in the fresh air of a still, clear morning. We ran into a wooded section of the course, through bracken and ferns at ground level and trees above, and I was struck that this is just not how I would normally spend a Saturday morning run.
Then the ground opened out and we came to the flooded section, a lot earlier in the race than I’d expected. It really was flooded; like running into a shallow lake or some sort of swamp, with tufts and clumps of tall wild grass sticking up out of the murky water. Ahead, runners simply carried straight on into it, right up to their knees, kicking up water, arms aloft for balance. I’d joked that I wanted photographic evidence of me doing this because no-one would believe it. Unfortunately there just wasn’t time. Jake splashed straight into it ahead of me, and I followed.
I’d love to tell you that I cried real tears at this, or some such hysterical overreaction. But I didn’t. I went in with a huge grin on my face, shouting and laughing aloud at the sheer wild joy of it. It wasn’t even cold, or if it was I didn’t feel it. When we emerged out of it Jake turned to check that, as a newbie trail runner, literally getting my feet wet for the first time, I was still there and still okay. But there I was, with a stupid grin plastered across my face, loving every minute of it.
We ploughed on. Some of the talking had to stop for a while as by necessity we were reduced to running single file where the track around the perimeter of a field was worn into a single, hollowed rut. While the pace dropped I was able to fish my phone out from my Flipbelt and take a couple of photos. Which is also never possible in a normal race. And which was nice.
My ankle was feeling okay, and once we’d made one of the road crossings and the track opened out into more woodland, I took the chance to open up the pace a little for us. We were still only running 07:30 minute miles, but this was faster than we’d anticipated. With more bracken and mud to negotiate, I almost lost one of my shoes in one particularly boggy section, as my foot sank into the mud.
The track took us into a farmer’s field, then turned left straight through it into a section of tall pine trees. Once again, as I may have remarked several times during the course of the race (I did do this), being out in the open air, among trees and fields and greenery, with the sound of birds singing and without the roar of traffic thundering past, was a revelation.
(By the way, I’ve no idea how trail runners actually find these routes. Aren’t farmer’s fields private property? Or can anyone just go and blunder their way onto them?)
From there the path eventually led us along some sort of concrete back access route to some houses. Here, with stone walls on one side and fields and hedgerow on the other, I was reminded of Cornish lanes. The concrete path was an opportunity to push the pace a little again, although I think we were both very aware of how clumpy our thick trail shoes sounded on the hard surface.
From there we turned right, up a hill – time for more photos – and then headed towards a farm gate. There was a helpful marshal calling out instructions to follow the track around the farm ahead. Ronnie the race organiser had mentioned it during the briefing: “If you see the farmer, remember he’s not really a big fan of us running through his farm, so just give him a friendly hello and act like he’s your best mate, and it’ll be fine.”
We didn’t see the farmer. The track skirted the farm, taking us past barns and outbuildings via access roads/driveways thick with mud – or possibly manure (which it certainly smelled as though it might have been).
Here Jake and I were caught up by another runner, a guy called Chris, who told us he’d made the transition from road to trails a little while ago. And although fellow runners look at his race times and lament where his speed has gone, he finds trails much more rewarding.
We made another of the road crossings, and were around eight miles in by now. Not far to go. There was more thick, sloppy mud and uneven rutted tracks around the perimeter of another field, and my ankle was complaining but holding up. Otherwise I still felt fresh, and we continued at around 07:30-07:45 minute miling. Then we gradually started recognising parts of the route as it brought us towards the finish as an out-and-back from the start.
“Now, nobody’s going to do anything silly at the end, are they?” Jake asked, meaning a sprint finish, before bursting into a surprise (and impressively fast) sprint finish himself. Chris and I sprinted after him, and the three of us went over the finish line almost three abreast. Great fun.
Better than that, we went through in fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth places – pretty good for a field of 181 finishers. Imagine if we’d gone out hard and pushed the pace properly! We probably couldn’t have won it, looking at the results, but we could have placed well into the top ten for sure.
Afterwards, the friendly feel to the race continued. We went back to the social club/sports hall to pick up finishers’ packs, including a HoboPace vest and personalised medal (impressive), and, of all the wonderful things in the world to be presented with post-race, a cup of tea!
After the Race/The Great Divide
Throughout this blog post, I’ve made a big deal out of me making a big deal about there being a divide between trail running types and road-running types. In all honesty, I’ve exaggerated it – mainly for the entertainment value of me, a softy road-runner who prefers nice flat tarmac, making a big namby-pamby, wet-arsed, hysterical, hissy-fit princess fuss about getting my new shoes a little muddy and my feet wet.
What I found intriguing was whether there really might be a divide between the two. As well as the usual post-race congratulations and positivity on Twitter (I love the running community), I was intrigued that a few people independently used the same phrase, asking whether I’d been “converted” to trail running. Road-running seems to get a very bad press on social media. Sometimes the narrative of the superiority of trails feels, at least to me, rather one-way and a little overpowering.
Come to think of it though, out of interest, you may be asking what the answer to the question was. Had I been converted?
Well, yes and no. If there have to be labels (and let’s face it, I’ve been throwing them around in this post) then I’m a road-runner through and through. I’m motivated to chase targets and goals. For me, the joy of running is in the act itself, the sensation of movement, feeling my bodily systems working and responding, the fluidity of the motion, and the sense of achievement in chasing times and targets. Speed is exhilarating.
This makes it a very internal thing. I’m not fussed about external surroundings and being aware of the world. Which is why I’m perfectly happy to pound the pavements of the A38 in Birmingham with traffic thundering past. I don’t see it or hear it: I’m locked into the ‘zone’, locked into the motion, concentrating on pace and form, focusing on how it feels, constantly monitoring, measuring, chasing and challenging myself against time or distance targets.
But that’s probably also why this run, out in the countryside, in the fresh air, with scenery and greenery, was such a revelation. And why I’ve enjoyed the handful of other trail runs I’ve done so much. Yes, it was very different; there’s little chance to focus on how it feels internally because it’s all about the external – focusing on form is difficult when you have to watch every footfall to make sure you don’t roll your ankle or lose a shoe in the mud. But I love countryside. Family holidays are about returning to it, letting it rest and reset the mind and body, absorbing the peace and power. Holidays aren’t about lager and lairiness; never have been. I was born and brought up in Birmingham but my soul thinks it’s from Cornwall.
I’d certainly do another HoboPace event. It was tremendously friendly and well-organised, with a great feel of personal involvement and enthusiasm. Well done and thanks to all involved for putting on such a lovely event, including the numerous marshals sat out in the middle of nowhere directing runners. There were plenty of signs, so no chance of getting lost on route – overall, perfect for a newbie like me.