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.
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?