At the end of May I entered my first ever trail race. I decided not to have my watch visible or take photos en route as I wanted to take it all in and run to feel. All the photos are kindly supplied by Stone Shoots.
Here's how I remember it - it's a long one, settle in.
Stood in a field with an inflatable finishing arch next to some barns and a stall selling home baked cakes and freshly brewed coffee we waited to start our 7, 16 or 23k races, but not for long. No holding pens or super-crazy-high-energy warm up here. Here the speakers played Smashmouth, Offspring and New Radicals and families sat at nearby picnic tables. We wandered into the general area for a quick briefing about road crossings and way marking and it was time to go.
The horn went and runners, young (kids run free), old, some with dogs, some with hydration vests, some kitted up and some in civvies, moved off and into the first field. Knee high grass. "Now I know why people wear compression socks" I thought to myself, "nettles". We quickly divided into two lanes following paths presumably beaten down by the pre-race course check. Then came the first hill, or more fairly, a slight incline. It would appear that trail-nerves and not being able to see below your calves does odd things to your perception of gradient and this was only within the first three minutes. Oh heck.
A queue formed as we reached the first stile and I was grateful for the enforced break. Having roughly thought I wouldn't look at my watch I decided this was most definitely a good idea. Much as I'd love to think I'm a country girl at heart, years of city living has left my stile-hopping skills somewhat lacking and lethargic.
So, over the stile and across onto a road. Time to let rip on the surface that I'm most accustomed to. There was a decent pack and it was nice to fly past a few people. I had no idea what was around the corner (other than some hills) so I thought I might as well do what I could while I could. The road turned into a dusty but hard path through the woodland of Rempstone Estate and again into the sandier, often ash-like paths of the heathland. The undulating path with it's rain-washed gulleys meant it was time to start looking where I was putting my feet and watching those ahead to see which bit of path they were taking. We were starting to spread out and I didn't want to get lost or miss the chance to use a more experienced runner's path so I made the effort to stick close. I could see 10 or so people snaking up ahead and as I lifted my head to see where they were going we reached the top of a slight hill and the view opened out. There was nothing but heathland and rocks ahead of me. My breath was taken away by the hill, the scenery and the sight of the next hill to come, onwards I went.
The steps up the side of the hill were so tall I couldn't have run up them even if I'd wanted to. This was time to take in the scenery and wipe off the clammyness before hearing a shout from a familiar voice. Somewhere out there was Mr B who as usual had taken it upon himself to get round the course and see me at as many points as possible. It feels a little bit like being hunted when you know someone can see you but you can't see them.
Down the other side and after to-ing and fro-ing a little with a lady next to me I let her go ahead on the single track path. It was nice not to be jostling for positions and to know that sometimes you just can't get past so you might as well not try. As we came to the edge of the heathland there was a ford across the path and again the city-dweller won out as I opted for the bridge at the side instead of running straight through like the enviable gent next to me. Another shout from Mr B and he came into view. Running ahead of me he led me and another 23k runner back onto tarmac and up into ...er...a village. I'll be honest, I wasn't really sure where I was going. I just followed the people ahead and the little orange arrows.
After this it was something of a blur of fresh air, fields and farm roads until we came up and along the edge of the cliffs.
As I passed Saturday dog-walkers going the other way and returned their friendly "morning" I didn't realise how close we were to the cliffs. It was only on rounding the corner and going surprisingly steadily up a chalky incline that I saw the bay ahead of me and realised I'd be running along the side of a fairly steep bank. If I was 13 I would have relished the chance to roll down a grassy hill ending only in bushes and a cold, salty bath but as a 34 year old who'd quite like to carry on running there was a little bit of 'the fear' at this point.
The final big hill (part of Old Harry) was not far off now. It became clear quickly that I couldn't run the whole way up it. Even the proud mule in me couldn't keep it going so I went for the walk-run option. Jelly-legged I reached the crest ready to pound the downhill and enjoy the free ride. Air flowed into my lungs and the slope mellowed into one which could sustain a less cautious approach. Realising that I'd not seen any markers for a while, it was lucky that I'd fallen into step with a gent from Weymouth RC. We both realised we must have gone wrong and U-turned back up part of the slope we'd been enjoying a few moments before. We later found out that a friendly farmer had moved the marker. I think I'd have been disappointed if I didn't get lost at least once. I hear it's a rite of passage for trail races.
Through forest, over tree stumps and across the final fields I was still enjoying every moment. The benefit of those boggy moments is that they give time to catch your breath. It was never all out all the time. Mr B re-appeared ahead and ran with me towards woods that stood between me and the finish line. Over the most terrifying obstacle of the race, a military style A-frame style with barbed wire, and into the garlicky-gloom.
He was hurtling down the path with glee and I was hot on his heels. I've never smelled wild garlic before - it's a memorable sensory experience when you're drawing breath in hard. We emerged from the trees and I giggled like some kind of crazy lady as we rounded the barns and hit the finish line. Somehow, who knows how, I'd won the female long race.
I've been nearly-but-not-quite about running them before but it never seemed the right time. There was always something else to train for or it was too far away or I was too scared of hills, getting lost and falling over. The AR-Endurance crew are a big fan of the off-road and after two road races and lots of tarmac time, now seemed like a good time to do it. I loved it. Annoyingly I can't make the next three Maverick races but I'll be back as soon as I can. Mr B and I went back out the next Monday to find fields near our house. I love the tension of the road race and I don't think I'll ever turn my back on tarmac but I've definitely got a new contender for the happiness of my feet. I think the trails have got me.