I feel like half the races I enter these days are called challenges rather than races. I quite like that actually; since in my case I’m not actually racing against anyone else – in this case, it turned out to be literally true – the idea that I’m putting myself through a challenge or a test seems more appropriate. A challenge suggests a race against yourself, or against a version of yourself, rather than a head to head with another runner. Or, for instance, with a large pile of mince pies.
The Mince Pi Challenge is unfortunately not a challenge to eat as many mince pies as possible – didn’t stop me trying – but is actually a 3.14 (get it?) mile lap run up to 10 times around the trails of Guildford and the river Wey, crossing the North Downs Way trail and taking in some lovely runnable inclines plus one bastard steep, practically sheer 180 foot high sand dune. The start and finish point in Shalford Park gave runners the opportunity to decide to go for one more or call it quits at the end of each lap, and pick up much needed fuel in the form of Celebrations chocolates and mince pies. Rude not to. All we were missing was sherry.
We had taken a group of Chasers to the inaugural event the year before and dominated, getting fastest times for 5, 6, 7 and 10 laps – this time, we were back to defend our titles and hopefully pick up a few more on the way. Somewhere between trail running and cross country, the event lends itself well to team competition; at the same time, much like the Challenge Hub Moonlight Challenge and 50 Mile Challenge, there’s no obligation to aim for a specific distance so runners can finish as much or as little as they feel able to and still get an official time. There were many runners lining up for a single post-Christmas lap at pace, others looking for distance to test themselves on, many just there to enjoy a crisp winter’s day of running in the beautiful Surrey countryside.
The previous year I had only been able to fit in 4 laps before dashing off to a QPR game, but this year the race fell on a Sunday without a game and represented my December marathon in my marathon-a-month challenge, so I would have to do at least 9 laps to achieve that. I was actually aiming for 10, knowing that only a few people would even try it and for the satisfaction of finishing the whole course, but I knew I had to be prepared for the fact that my weary legs would only carry me so far, and that risking a DNF and ruining my own challenge was worse than playing it safe.
We started off in a group which quickly thinned out as those planning to run it hard took off. I tried to keep up with Cat and Lorraine for a while but I knew I wouldn’t be able to match them for pace even if I wasn’t going for the full distance, so I let them go ahead and trotted along. I remembered the sand dune in the middle from last time – with very little purchase and being so steep it really is a climb more than a walkable hill – but strangely I was actually looking forward to it even a few laps in. Somehow, it was much more satisfying to climb and psychologically less demanding than some of the more gradual slopes, since all you could do was dig in and go for it. Better still, once you reached the top you were greeted by the beautiful ruins of a medieval church, and a glorious vista across the Surrey hills. And then, my favourite thing – a downhill you need a parachute for, straight down to the river.
The rest of the course takes in much of the riverside, needing some careful footing along the boggy embankments but underscored by the peaceful sway of the water, only occasionally broken by the swish of oars from the local rowing club. It’s also a popular route for Sunday morning dogwalkers, cyclists and kids trying out their new scooters, all friendly faces that were happy to share the morning with us. My legs were already pretty leaden by about halfway, but I plugged on, smile pinned to my face, enjoying the soundtrack of the countryside.
Chasers trail queen Cat had the 10 lap title from last year as the only person to finish the whole course, but was coming back from a double whammy of injury and illness this time and wouldn’t be able to defend it. Most of the Chasers were going for 5, 6 or 7 laps and then planning to settle into the Weyside pub, which has a veranda looking out over the river about half a mile from the end of the lap, where they could cheer on other runners. Lorraine stayed back to cheer me through lap 4 even though she had finished almost an hour before but eventually had to get into the warm, and so being on my own for most of the race I didn’t really think too much about my time or my placing until after my stomach told me it was lunchtime.
As I got to the end of lap 7 I asked the RD how many people were left running. Only four, it turned out – and of those, only me and one other were going for the full 10 laps, and I was just in front. Even though I was struggling by now, I had to power on and try not to be distracted by the temptation to race; another mince pie down the gullet and I pushed on. As I turned right to take up the trail again, I looked behind me and saw Melissa, the other 10 lap runner, gaining on me. By the middle of lap 8 she caught me up, passed me comfortably and took off like a rocket. She was still bright and smiley, gaining in strength and going for it. Happy as I was for her I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed, until I remembered that I didn’t even know I was in front for 8 laps – today was a challenge, not a race, I reminded myself. Always forward.
Moving forward on the flat was getting hard enough now, let alone the climbs, that once I started lap 9 I realised I had to decide whether to continue with all 10 or call it a day. Melissa was so far in front of me by now that she ended up finishing all 10 laps before I finished my 9, so strong was her finish. Partly because I had to concede that I didn’t have it in me, partly because I was conscious of being the only person left on the course and partly (although I hate to admit it) because it meant I was technically the fastest person over 9 laps, I finished the last 3.14 miles with a leap over the finish line, flanked by Chasers and full of mince pies. Just over 28 miles in 05:46:52 is not going to win me any medals but there’s nothing quite like the challenge of a lap race, where there’s so much temptation to give in and only the reward of knowing you did your best.
Which, in a funny sort of way, mirrored my own year-long challenge – not to win every single marathon I ran or even to improve my time, but to learn my limits and how much I could push them, and more importantly, when not to. I’d much rather be the sort of runner that can still grind out long distances with a soppy grin on my face when I’m seventy than go for broke in every race and trash my knees, and I’d much rather be eating mince pies and chocolates than energy gels along the way too. Stretching the definition of an athlete I might be, but you’ll never take away that memory of seeing my clubmates run across the line with me, the only remaining runner in a race that just 100 people started, which I entered just because the medal is shaped like a pie.
I have a feeling we’ll be back again next year.