Runaway bridezilla

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Oh no. I’ve become what I always insisted I would never be. I’ve become a bridezilla.

I can’t stop talking about it; even when I try to change the subject, inevitably the discussion swerves back in that direction. It’s all about the outfit, the logistics, what we’re going to eat, what music to play, making sure everyone turns up on time and hoping someone will get a few decent photos. Everything has to go perfectly since I’m not planning to do it more than once – although, you never know. I’m already boring everyone stiff talking about it, and the event’s not until August.

There’s no wedding involved though, I hate weddings. No, I’m talking about a 100 mile race.

If you know me, you know my Evernote lists. Those things run my life; my main job to-do lists, my freelance job to-do lists, blog notes, race prep lists, holiday plans, they all go straight into little lists with pleasingly tickable tickboxes next to them. The list for the North Downs Way 100 gets a tweak every couple of days or so, and even when there isn’t anything to tweak I just gaze at it adoringly, as if looking at it is going to bring me closer to August. Like a bride-to-be poring over a mood board, magazines full of dresses and table settings, invitation samples and menus. Seriously, how do I still have friends?

Some of those patient, long-suffering friends actually have significant life events of their own to talk about, would you believe. You know, actual weddings, babies, mortgages and the like. And there’s me, able to tell you the date of any major trail or ultra race off the top of my head but completely stumped when to comes to my friend’s child’s birthday.

“It’s July, right? Or June? A summer month.”

“It was February, Jaz. You missed it.”

So I was a little reticent to follow Cat’s advice and put up a post asking for race pacers on the Chasers Facebook page; it’s a bit look-at-me, I thought, not to mention presumptuous to hope that anyone would give up their time to pace me. And by giving up their time, I don’t mean spending a sunny Sunday afternoon trolling around in the countryside. I can only have pacers after the 50 mile mark, which will take around 12 hours for me to reach, which means any potential support crew having to make their way to Nowheresville, Kent around suppertime and stick with me through the wee hours while I dribble on, sleep deprived and crotchety and demanding entertainment like a toddler on a sugar comedown.

Of course, I’d reckoned without the completely awesome and slightly barmy Chasers trail club. While I was toing and froing about whether or not to ask for help, they were already looking up crew access points and learning Queen songs to sing to keep my spirits up. A hundred miles is a pretty long way to run, and they understood that I would need help even if I was too proud or too nervous to ask for it, just like any friend would do. In retrospect, it’s a bit daft of me to worry about geeking out over a run with a load of running geeks. Not to mention the fact that the whole reason we know each other is our mutual interest in running really fucking long distances. 

I suppose the mistake I’d made was worrying about why my non-running friends would care about my running activities, any more than I care about what flowers are going in someone’s bridal bouquet or what consistency the crap their toddler did this morning was or how much fun they had at some hipster bar last night. Facebook has made every moment so public, everyone’s life is like a glossy magazine advert now. Yeah, sure it’s irritating to scroll through a news feed full of “LOOK HOW EXCITING MY LIFE IS!” but even though I try to keep my fanfaring to a minimum I’m as guilty of it as anyone. And yet, it’s not like anyone’s ever told me to shove my medal photos up my arse, not that I’d blame them if they did.

Because that’s what being a friend is all about, isn’t it? It doesn’t mean expecting them to care as much about your shit as you do; it’s about celebrating anything that is important in each other’s lives. What that thing is, whether it’s a significant event or an everyday moment, it’s not been posted to show off, or because people think you want to know about it; it’s been posted because they want to share their happiness with you, regardless of the source of that happiness. And it’s a privilege to know someone who wants to share their happiness with you, whether it’s “Look how many shots I drank!” or “Look how many miles I ran!”. Or, occasionally, both. 

So, yeah, I’m a bridezilla. I’ll try to keep my squee moments within the confines of decency, or at the very least, restrict my running geekery to my running geek friends, but every now and again you might see a photo of an outfit or an update about a cake tasting session. Humour me, mute my posts if you need to. Accept my apologies in advance. It’ll all be over in August. And then I’ll try to be a less shit friend. 

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Pilgrim Challenge – part 2

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This is not even the beginning. For part 1 of the Pilgrim Challenge click here

Being mid pack I had the 8am start the next morning, giving me an hour’s extra sleep over the walkers and slower runners, but an hour earlier than the fastest 50 from the day before (which included fellow Chaser Cat and her friend Sam). Before the event I’d been looking forward to the sleepover – a hundred or so runners in sleeping bags on the floor of a school gym, eating pasta dinner in a canteen, geeking out and swapping horror stories; if anything was going to make me feel like a kid this would – but by the end of day one I was so tired I could barely focus on faces, let alone conversation. I missed out on the talks delivered by two legendary ultra runners and just about managed to smile blithely at everyone who came over to chat to Cat and Sam without falling asleep where I sat, despite the extraordinary stories they had to tell. So, back to my usual unsociable self.

I had grossly underestimated the level of comfort offered by a gym floor and a sleeping bag though. Having only packed one thin roll mat to minimise the weight of my pack, I found the only position I could comfortably sustain for longer than five minutes was flat on my back. A light camp bed is definitely on the list for next time (probably wouldn’t go as far as those wonderfully organised souls who brought airbeds complete with eiderdown and chintz valance). I drifted in and out for maybe five hours in total, and eventually gave up to join the walkers for breakfast.

Struggling with my compression socks in the ladies’ changing room, I met one of the hardcore three who were last back in from the night before; a friendly but proper lady, sitting on the bench already fully dressed and meticulously taping up every last inch of her feet. Given how difficult the last 5 miles had been on my toes once the icy water had got in and numbed them, I can’t imagine how hers must have been holding up. She had such a calm, resolute, no nonsense manner and patiently answered all of my daft questions with a smile, although I can’t say I’d have been so graceful if the tables had been turned. When she told me she’d had less than five hours’ sleep and that it would take even longer today, she spoke as if it was no more remarkable than your average retiree’s Sunday plans. She was the epitome of Britishness.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, I’m ashamed to say, but the race organisers and volunteers must have had just as exhausting a day, if not more so. There were the four checkpoints out on the course, each manned by five or six stewards; three at the finish line of the first day waiting in the freezing cold to take down times and print splits info; God knows how many people making sure of an endless supply of hot and cold food, plus soup and rolls, homemade cakes and tea and coffee; an army of masseuses offering their services at the end of both days who doubled up as stewards; a driver for each of the vehicles transporting kit back and forth; Neil the RD buzzing around rescuing idiots who can’t read directions (ahem); and some poor sod will have found himself with a hammer and a fuck off marquee to put up at Farnham. They all seemed to be up long before us and must have been the last to turn the lights out. Whatever you think of the course, the entrance fee can only barely have covered the cost of the logistics alone. Amazing value.

Whether it was adrenalin still coursing through me, the fact that moving around was so much less painful than lying still, or knowing that the sooner we started the sooner we’d be finished, I couldn’t wait to get going again. Bag repacked and back on the fun bus, I lined up with the rest of the group waiting for the ever so understated race start. We started bang on time, but just as if we were all out on a training run it was just one minute waiting to go, next minute going. No fanfare, no nervy build up, no last minute distractions. Just determination, and focus.

As we ran through Reigate Golf Club I tried in vain to find the point where I’d veered off course the day before, although I felt slightly better about getting lost after hearing that Cat had made exactly the same mistake the year before. The rare stretch of paved ground was icier than the previous day, and the temperature even cooler, but with a low winter sun shining brightly and low humidity it was actually much more comfortable weather for running in. Well, relatively.

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If day 1’s tactic was about saving energy then day 2 was pretty much the running equivalent of triple glazed windows, hand knitted draught excluders and only turning on one bar on the heater. Conscious of the challenge ahead of me I concentrated on keeping my cadence high but my footsteps light and easy, my posture straight and my shoulders low. Despite starting off with a cloudy head and stiff neck from poor night’s sleep, it didn’t take long for me to find my rhythm and find myself plugging metronomically on. A bit like going to work on a hangover; you think you’re on the verge of death, but somehow it all seems to get done.

In fact by around mile 5 I was skimming the mud and dancing over the slopes and troughs like an ibex, well into my stride and enjoying the technical terrain. After first catching up with the early start walkers and even overtaking some ambitious front runners in the 8am group, I made the most of my energy spike to tear down the steps at Box Hill before the long slow climb up the hill at Denbies that I knew wouldn’t be far off. Within an hour I’d gone from just wanting to get to the finish alive to planning race tactics. Call me Mo.

As always happens when passing through the wine estate, the sight of the vines lining the rolling hills made me feel as warm and merry as drinking their wine would. The area is so peaceful, so calming, even if it wasn’t for the long climb I’d still have taken a walk break, the better to enjoy it. Slightly more with it than I had been at this point the day before, I even stopped to take a photo this time. It doesn’t do the view justice.

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With the fastest runners – including elites like Danny Kendall on his way to a course record, and of course Cat and Sam – due to start an hour after the main group it was only a matter of time before they caught us up. Without the pressure of competition it was really thrilling, in a slightly tragic and autograph hunter-y sort of way, to know that at some point we’d see them all flying past. I actually expected to see them much sooner than I did, but by the time I got to the pillboxes on White Down Lease the still Sunday silence had been broken by occasional bursts of energy as one by one they all shot past. It was as if they were running a completely different race to the rest of us. Which, I suppose, they were.

Cat had been in eighth position in the ladies’ race at the end of day 1, but only minutes behind sixth and seventh, and was feeling strong. I’d clocked a steely look in her eye the night before as she did some quick mental arithmetic while talking about pace and positioning, and I saw it again when she caught me up around mile 18, along a familiar but flat and deadly stretch. She seemed to be gliding along, toes lightly grazing the ground more than landing on it. The thought briefly crossed my mind – was she the first woman to overtake us? In barely a moment she was gone, but that moment was all I needed to give me a lift.

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Ten miles in sixty six is nothing, but ten miles at the end of fifty six might as well be a hundred. By this point I knew I’d finish; I thought I might even have a chance of sub 7 hours (as ambitious as it was to lose only half an hour on the first day; most people were expecting to be at least an hour slower) but I knew from experiences at Beachy Head and Salisbury that in trail running it’s the tortoise’s race, not the hare’s. Sticking to my plan of running to effort rather than pace I patiently trudged up hills and trotted along the flats, slowing eating into those ten blasted miles and comforting myself with the thought that there’d be cake at the end of it all.

Not entirely able to trust my Garmin or the overall distance, I hit the last checkpoint just after 27 miles and couldn’t resist asking them how long was really left. It’s a bit of a rule I have not to do that normally; whatever the marshal says it’s bound to be a little off, either because the Garmin is lying or because the course is, or because you’ve veered off course. On an average day you take that info with a pinch of salt, knowing four miles might mean four and a quarter or two miles might only be 1.89. But when you’re exhausted, slightly delirious and looking for the strongest possible finish, you fixate on the distance to three decimal places, and if you plan your final burst of energy to last for four miles that extra quarter mile is the longest quarter mile ever. But I broke my rule, I asked. And I discovered that neither the course, nor the marshal, nor even my Garmin was lying.

Remembering that the finish was just after a road crossing I powered through the trail path, pretending the final three miles were Wimbledon Common parkrun and reeling in the other runners one by one, until I could see the Tarmac. And on the other side of the Tarmac there was a short, sharp little hill covered in shin high grass, and then there were the flags. I sprinted my heart out – I was probably being overtaken by wildlife but it felt like sprinting to me – and nearly crashed into the finishers tent, sobbing and laughing at the same time. I was done.

The first thing I did – before remembering to stop my Garmin, almost before forgetting to hand my timing tag back in – was find the scoreboards and Cat’s name. There she was – winner of the ladies’ race on day 2, second placed lady overall (unbelievably ten minutes faster on day 2 than day 1) and looking fresh as a daisy. She found me wobbling and stuttering and pressed flapjacks into my shaking hands, just in time for the shuttle bus to Farnham station to whisk us off and catch the one-an-hour train back to London.

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Still dressing in the back of the van, I barely had a moment to reflect on what I’d achieved. At seven hours and five minutes, I was slightly less than half an hour slower than day 1 and had improved my overall placing from 26th to 19th with the effort. 66 miles, 2 days, the medal said. It’s all numbers though; I know what I really took away from those two days. I took away the certainty that every downhill has an up, that you’ve never seen grit until you’ve met a long distance walker, and that every time you feel like giving in there’s someone round the corner with peanut butter sandwiches and pretzels.

Just a few days later an email popped up in my inbox: a place had become available on the waiting list for the North Downs Way 100 miler in August. This August. Bugger it, I thought. I haven’t seen quite enough of the North Downs recently.

So I’m in.

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Pilgrim Challenge – part 1

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What would I even have to write on these race reports if I didn’t have public transport to grumble about? Not even a 2 day, 66 mile trail event through the most stunning scenery inside the M25 could upstage my hatred of public transport.

I’ve made my peace with the preparation stage of races. If you can get hold of your nutritionally perfect pre race meal, or do your yoga routine exactly 9 hours and 17 minutes before the race starts, or sleep in your own portable oxygen tent, then good for you; but if you have any sort of life you probably have to take what you’re given and hope it doesn’t give you the shits. You might be lucky enough to have a car and be able to drive to bumfuck nowhere, and you might even find parking there, but if not – and you still insist on traipsing around the woods in the depths of winter – you might have to brave the train.

A few weeks out from the Pilgrim Challenge I looked up trains to Farnham and saw that there was a direct train from my home station, and I would be just about safe to make the pre-race briefing at 8.30 on the Saturday morning. Lovely jubbly. Then it was New Year, which South West Trains celebrated with a prolonged series of engineering works closing the line down every weekend until further notice. Suddenly the options were narrowed down to a) leave at 5am and still be late or b) go the night before. Which means a Friday night commuter train. Which means everyone hates you and wishes you dead.

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After a hectic week at work and a last minute five-thirty-on-a-Friday job, I jumped on the train as soon as it was announced to find a spot where me and my enormous hiking pack would be slightly less in the way. No baggage racks that would take it, no standing gaps to speak of. The train started to fill up with grumpy, tired, weekending commuters, and I mentally wrote my obituary.

Thankfully a Kind Man came to my rescue by shunting the pack into a gap between seats that I would have had no chance at reaching. He warned me that the 18:55 gets pretty full at least as far as Woking, with a slightly feral demeanour and a war vet twitch in one eye, and retreated to a safe distance. Just in time for an Important Man to bustle in, spend fully ten minutes arranging his newspapers then take the seat next to me, and half of mine with it. I clearly needn’t have worried.

All’s well that ends well, as someone said once, and within an hour I was settled into my hotel in Farnham with fellow Chaser and trail club leader Cat, making excited squeaky noises and covering the room with random bits of running kit. Staying over the night before definitely turned out to be the right call – despite me waking up in the morning to what sounded like my pet budgies and then feeling a bit homesick when I realised it wasn’t them – when we peered out of the window to a blanket of powdery white snow.

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We were picked up from Farnham station by the Extreme Energy fun bus and shuttled straight to the starting line, the first sign of just how well we would be looked after over the weekend. Two marquees set up next to the starting pen were the first point of call for runners to pick up their race numbers, electronic tags and cups of hot coffee before leaving it to the last possible minute to brave the freezing weather outside, and I mean freezing. Buffs, double gloves, gaiters, long tights, layers upon layers of clothing, still everyone shivered violently as we waited for the off. I had stuck stubbornly with my short shorts (they’ve never let me down yet) and faced hypothermia with defiance.

To start the race we would beating a path through settling snow and cutting across private farmland before picking up the North Downs Way. I played a game with myself where I tried to keep Cat in view for as long as possible, which I lost almost as soon as we crossed the road. And then remembered she is Superwoman, and I am not, and I was meant to be pacing myself for thirty three steady but treacherous trail miles. Twice.

Thinking about the enormity of the challenge lying ahead is a dangerous move – not that the distance particularly freaks me out, but even my slightly warped brain has trouble processing what to do with sixty plus miles ahead of me. Instead I broke it down into chunks between checkpoints, each of them a separate and manageable 6-10 mile race, knowing that at the end there’d be opportunity for a rest and time to stuff my pockets with salted pretzels, peanut butter sandwiches and sausage rolls. Funnily enough though, every now and again I felt like if I stopped I could never get going again, but as soon as I’d hit a checkpoint and stuffed my mush I’d be raring to go as if back at the beginning of the race, almost without pausing for breath. Somehow, just having something to look forward to gave me the energy to push on. Especially as that something was food.

Quite happy to drift off into my own little world for a while and enjoy the scenery, I suddenly realised this was my first snow all winter, living as I do in tropical south west London. I couldn’t help but grin. As I’ve said before, ultra running keeps giving me more and more reasons to indulge my inner child: tearing down hills, eating peanut butter and jelly babies and drinking orange squash, getting covered in mud without feeling guilty, and now snow. There’s your fountain of youth.

And under the snow, cheekily hidden beneath the crisp crust, there lay icy puddles and mud.

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I’ve had a fair few run ins with mud in my running career so far – looking back through my blog posts I found the one on Bromley 10k in January last year and my first attempt at the Moonlight Challenge six weeks afterwards, and I was reminded of that totally hopeless Atreyu-in-the-bog impression and my abject failure to cope. Something about the way it was pulling my feet down, like running in double gravity, just destroyed me mentally. But I’ve put myself through a lot of mud in the last twelve months and made it my friend – the mud along the North Downs Way more than any other – and I even found myself feeling stronger for attacking the boggiest sections and occasionally skipping past other runners. I also remembered the lesson that I learned on the Moonlight Challenge: the faster you go across mud the less you come in contact with it. In other words, get a bloody move on and stop whinging.

The other big challenge I decided to tackle in a completely different way: with a total of 66 miles and just under 6000 feet of elevation to cover, there was no point in wasting my energy running up every hill, and there were plenty of the buggers. Sure, I jogged over the first few undulations feeling smug, but I knew as soon as I hit Guildford that effort saving mode would be the key, all the while putting out of mind the impending climb up Box Hill around mile 21. My trusty tactic of running hills to effort – trudge up, tear down – was as successful as I could have hoped. Successful, in that I didn’t collapse in a heap when faced with the first of 268 stairs.

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As thoughtful as it was of someone to build steps for climbing Box Hill, I had to placate my grumbling quads with the thought that at least I’d be going down them tomorrow, which is basically my favourite thing of all things ever. That being said I don’t think it was the elevation that I struggled with so much as the succession of false endings. Only a few more steps to go, then I’m at the top of the hill. What’s this, round the corner? Oh look, more bastard steps. Plainly I cannot count to 268.

Actually, it wasn’t even climbing Box Hill that brought me closest to a nervous breakdown that weekend. Did you know that when you get to the top of Box Hill there’s another little hill just beyond it? Can’t be more than a quarter of a mile long, but it’s almost as high, with a gradient like a painter’s ladder. A band of hikers coming the other way cheerfully informed me I was nearly at the top, as I literally crawled up on all fours. Quite possibly I spat at them.

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But once you reach the top, all there is to do is go back down again. At least, figuratively and literally, going downhill is what it felt like. My Garmin disagrees; according to him we had another fair old climb, not to mention 11 more miles to run, but I have absolutely no recollection of this. At some point there would have been the old faithful downhill at Denbies wine estate – a particular favourite spot, can’t imagine why – looking out over glorious acres of vines all dusted with snow like icing sugar on a Yule log. Despite my hazy memory I remember that image vividly, and I remember thinking that I should take a photo and then deciding not to stop and lose momentum, and that the mental image was strong enough I’d never need a photo to remember it. Flawless logic for an exhausted, frozen, mileage-addled brain.

A brain that was to thoroughly let me down, just a couple of miles from the end. I’d veered off course a few times but not in any way that I couldn’t recover from, usually because other runners who weren’t too stupid to read directions would call me back or point me in the right direction. The North Downs Way is pretty easy to follow when you’re out on the downs proper; contrary to what you’d think, those parts were the easiest to navigate. But as soon as it crossed civilisation of any kind – crossing a road, going through a private estate, coinciding with a footpath – I would be stymied by sign blindness and suddenly unable to navigate a road going in only one direction.

Which is exactly how I managed to follow the signs leading us out of the Gatton Park School grounds not back onto the North Downs Way, but instead onto a tiny country road with a 50mph speed limit and not quite enough room for two cars and a pedestrian to pass. This is not a problem for the cars. It IS a problem for the pedestrian.

Looking back up the road I suddenly noticed I’d been running alone along a dwindling grass verge, following some orange arrows from another race, for a good fifteen minutes. Given that going back the way I came would mean a) going uphill and b) more miles on feet that were already numb with cold, I decided to sprint to the relatively safety of the other end of the road where I could ring the race director and beg for directions, thereby admitting that I’m a massive numpty. Neil was so graceful, kind and patient while working out where I was and how to get me back on track, I was torn between wanting to find and thank him when I got back to base and avoiding owning up to being the prat who ran a mile and a half down a high road.

So far, and yet so close. My little detour meant I’d had to give up on the vague target of six and a half hours, but since I’d managed to get lost just as we were due to turn into Merstham I was only a few winding streets away from the end. Rejoining the Pilgrim Challenge runners in the village I realised that because of the lack of other runners on the high road I’d been assuming I was dead last, rather than noticing I was just in the wrong place, which is why I plugged on in the wrong direction for so long. Of course I wasn’t last. Sprinting up to the finish line at the doors of the school after six hours and thirty seven minutes I found a fair few pairs of muddy trail shoes lined up, but over half the field still out in the freezing cold.

The challenge welcomes walkers as well as runners, so long after I’d had my nice hot shower, eaten a nourishing pasta dinner and tucked myself up in my sleeping bag with my compression socks and book there were three brave, hardy souls still out on the Downs. They eventually finished the first day in just over thirteen hours, having started an hour earlier than most of the runners and due to start again at 7am the next morning. Let me be clear: these are remarkable, awesome people. Any chump can run as fast as possible to get to a nice warm sleeping bag at the end. Staying out in the freezing weather, open to the elements and the pitch darkness, knowing there’s maybe five hours of sleep between finishing this leg and starting it all over again, is an unfathomable kind of tough.

So that was me done for day 1. A bit sore, not quite as sociable as I’d hoped to be that evening and rueing my lack of camp bed on the hard gym floor, but I was halfway there. Now all I had to do was the same thing all over again, in reverse. Even as I fell asleep, I couldn’t bloody wait to wake up again.

Click here for day 2…

Leatherhead Fire Station 10k

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The Leatherhead Fire Station 10k on Remembrance Sunday coincides with the anniversary of the running club I belong to, Clapham Chasers, and is often well attended by the club members. This year was no exception, with a staggering 88 of the 338 registered to run wearing the blue and green strip. Although I’ve been with the Chasers on and off for 18 months now, it was the first time I’d entered a race wearing the strip and travelled with the club. What an occasion to choose.

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The race itself is charmingly unfussy, impeccably run and set against a stunning backdrop of the Surrey countryside. Picture postcard thatched houses snuggling up against the still green hills, all backlit by a bright, low winter sun. It’s probably no more remarkable than any other pocket of suburbia but to a perennial city-dweller like me it was breathtaking.

Organised by the fire station where the race begins and ends, there was a feeling of being in very safe hands. In comparison, I’d managed to make a complete mockery of the word ‘organised’. I’d been forced to unpack and repack my bag about ten times the previous night, spooked by a last minute weather forecast check which had the temperature during the race as low as 3 degrees. And I still managed not only to leave important gubbins behind but also to end up with a bag too small to hold my warm clothes while I ran. Having been focused on marathon and half marathon training for most of the year I had all but forgotten how to pace myself for the distance, and it was also the first race since I short-sightedly threw out my old long sleeved running tops in a tidying fit. Ice that cake with the fact that South West Trains weren’t running between Clapham Junction and anywhere useful to me, and you’ll understand why I was so jittery.

The race started a little after 10am with a minute’s silence for Remembrance Sunday. A couple of parish notices about a car that was blocking the path and the arrangements for the race start were delivered by one of the firemen calling down from the top of a tower. No PA systems, no cheerful pop songs I don’t recognise or poorly balanced dance music, no sponsor’s messages – just a gentle hubbub and birdsong. Wonderful stuff. Other race organisers take note: Radio 1 wannabes spouting hyperbole might stir up a bit of last minute adrenalin in some runners apparently not excited enough about a 10,000m race, but they don’t do it for me. On the other hand, if a firemen tells me to start running I run. I don’t even wait to find out which direction to go.

The Arctic chill I was expecting never really materialised – in fact I’d go as far as to say it was perfect running weather. Lovely bright sunshine in a clear sky (definitely needed the sunglasses more than the earwarmers), crisp cool air and not a raindrop in sight, it was the sort of weather that smells cold but doesn’t really feel it. Within half a mile I’d relegated my thin running jacket to my waist and by halfway my hands, usually bereft of circulation even at the height of summer, were too warm in my light gloves.

We’d been warned that the course was pretty much uphill for the first 5k, and after talking to a couple of people who’d run it before we had to abandon the hope that that was an exaggeration. The first time someone asked me what time I thought I’d do, I gave a tentative “56 minutes would be nice”. The second time I’d downgraded it to “Erm, I’d take 58 and change.” The third time – well, I’d given up on finishing at all and just asked that my remains be returned to my loved ones if I dropped down dead by the side of the road. For God’s sake, I even filled out my next of kin info on the back of my race number.

Either because I was expecting Kilimanjaro, or because of the hill sessions I’ve been doing with my mum, the treacherous terrain turned out to be pretty manageable. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not lying about the hills; but by starting on them you are forced to take a steady pace and are more likely to end up with a negative split overall. The second main incline – I don’t know why I’m differentiating, it’s just one enormous incline that gets steeper faster instead of levelling off – was so severe at one point that I actually resorted to marching up it, and in doing so went faster than I would have running. A tactic to remember for future races.

Then, rather wonderfully – and I really think this was the psychological turning point – we went back down the hill. Sounds obvious, and it stands to reason that on any course set in a loop what goes up must come down, but I have run races where the downhill travel after a steep hill gets somewhat absorbed into a longer, shallower, less satisfying descent and you end up wondering if you’re on that optical illusion spiral staircase, destined always to climb. Not here. Despite being mostly solid ground underfoot it felt very like fell running, where the art of the descent is in retaining enough control to land safely on uneven ground – less like running and more like tumbling. I tend to run hills according to effort rather than speed, meaning I plod going up and freewheel on the way down like Phoebe from Friends, keeping my heart rate as level as possible. It’s not necessarily the most sensible tactic but in this race it worked just fine.

In keeping with the no frills nature of the event, there was just one water station (trestle table) just after 5k, manned by two dedicated and no doubt freezing souls handing out plastic cups. Even with the narrow lanes there was no crowding and it was incredibly easy to pick up a cup of water, swallow a few gulps and drop the cup in a bin a little further on. No fear of tripping over hundreds of bottles or skidding about in a lake of Highland Spring.

From then on the course largely flattened out, save for a couple of hillocks and the odd bridge, and after levelling out the effect of first trudging up a hill then falling down it, it was easy to fall into a nice regular rhythm. Your classic race of two halves, to borrow the football pundits’ favourite cliché. Which set me up for a massive surprise – and a fit of nerves – when I did a bit of mental arithmetic and arrived at the conclusion that I was on course for closer to 55 minutes than 58. It didn’t seem possible given the slow start, but I was surprisingly comfortable in an 8:15ish pace and unwilling to let a runner from Wimbledon I’d spotted just ahead of me leave my sight so I stayed with it. Before long it turned out I had peaked a little too soon, my breathing suddenly so ragged that I failed to notice a marshal helping people cross the road up ahead and instead blundered out into the middle of three lanes of traffic where I had to wait a good 30 seconds to be let across. Slightly startled by the incident and about to succumb to the jelly legs I usually get when I reach the end of a race, I didn’t realise I was on the final stretch until I saw a clutch of supporters cheering me on with the blue and green flag of Clapham Chasers, and gave a bit of a sprint kick to prove I wasn’t giving up. And then I saw the clock – just ticking over 55 minutes, knowing that I passed it about 30 seconds after the start – and stunned, wrung out the very last of my breath to get across the timing mats. Thank God there wasn’t anyone taking pictures at the finish line – I must have looked like Munch’s The Scream.

We were greeted at the end by off duty firemen who took our timing chips and gave us our medals. There was no goody bag but frankly all that meant was that there would be less crap for me to take home to my poor long-suffering boyfriend and our full-to-bursting spare room. I’m a big fan of the less is more approach – so there weren’t any free granola bars or post run massages and the roads hadn’t been closed, but they were well marshalled, I got my nice shiny medal (I’m such a magpie), and I got a nice warm changing room which is a luxury in itself. The £15 entrance fee was very fair, and the small field made it very friendly to a crowdphobe like me. All in all a pretty idyllic race I would heartily recommend, and will definitely be running again.

My Garmin and my official chip time agreed on 54:45, which is the second fastest 10k race time I’ve ever done and the fastest in over two years, last set on a much flatter course. My achievements turned out to be nothing in comparison to those of Clapham Chasers as a club however; prizes for second and third men and the top three women all went to Chasers, as did the men’s team award. I’m more determined than ever to make up for the training time I lost when it was too cold or too wet or too dark to join the Chasers for the weekly social run, since my improvement rate when I run with them is unquestionable, and I will no longer persuade myself that I’m “just not a fast runner”. I’m not the fastEST runner, but if was 3+ minutes wrong about how fast I could go on this race then who knows how much more wrong I could be next time?

Leatherhead elevation