Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Hell runner down south

Six years on from my first hell runner and the event promised to add a few surprises to their standard 10-12 mile loop and boy they weren't kidding. 

Hell runner was one of the original mass participation mudstacle races and has built up a strong following with thousands of entrants each year, but with the escalation in the number and variety of competitor events, numbers have dropped and it definitely needed a reboot. 

Firstly the organisers moved the date from mid November to the beginning of January, which potentially could have a huge impact on the temperature of the race. Tough guy for example isn't hard because of the obstacles, it's slicing your legs on the ice and repeatedly being submerged in freezing water - the cold will sap you like no hill can.

Thankfully the temperature was fairly mild, but the local area had flooded over Christmas and the previous two days it had been pissing it down turning the car park into a swimming pool. As we lined up at the start I briefed my friend Ross, the potential winner, to go hard for the first two miles as the course is flat (when the sun is shining - fucking hey), but the organiser said the start have a twist.

Ross and I at the start

Loud music and devil chanting done, we were off and a front group was emerging, with Ross positioned at its head. I nestled in behind, taking a while to work my way through the chasers and within half a mile we veered from the track through the woods and through a small pond. We weren't following a path; this was an obvious effort to up the ante, a little bit of a token, but then it didn't stop. Every opportunity to deviate up an extra hill or run off trail beside a path they were taking. The climbs were not that long, but it was proving hard to find a rhythm.

The water had dramatically changed the course. The hills were sandy and therefore the paths were covered in pot holes. Puddles were everywhere, but combined with the potholes, every step could be into an inch of water or a foot. You had to decide how far extra you were prepared to run to avoid the Russian roulette puddles with every stride. The raised middle of the paths were rutted and overgrown, so they were'n't a great alternative and I came a cropper a couple of times, once wiping out down a pot hole, another losing my shoe completely.

By the mid way point I was up to fifth - Joe Dale had stormed past me, having started thirty seconds after the gun (and only came second by less than a second) and I'd switched places with a couple of other runners and that's when it went nuts.

My legs already felt tired from training, I glanced at my watch at five miles and was happy to still be pushing at near to the half way point, but then the hills and terrain moved up a gear. We were running through a forest, searching for the arrows and having to pick a path to get from one to the next, as there was no set route. The hills were getting steeper, doubling back on themselves constantly and at times were really dangerous. I pride myself on my descents, but there were meter drops, slippery leaves on top of sodden topsoil and the odd boulder thrown in. It was hard not to pick up speed, but a huge risk to go too fast, as even trail shoes weren't gripping and you'd unexpectedly need to jump, vault or come to a sudden halt to avoid turning an ankle. They sent us down gulleys or just off the side of a tree covered hill and the next two miles took me almost 20 minutes. You had to concentrate throughout and it felt great; it's so rare to run such challenging terrain, especially down south.

Craziness over, well part conquered, we headed for the bog of doom - a thirty meter bog of neck high rain water, which this year should have been rechristened the ocean of the occult. I had long considered my entrance and was opting for the dive, when I decided to switch for a bomb at the last moment and thank goodness I did, the bog that I bombed into turned out to be a three inch puddle leading up the the bog, I looked a bit foolish, but it possibly saved my life. Second attempt, bombs away, crowd soaked and the long cold swim/walk underway with the baying crowd mocking you all the way. The extra water extended the bog and increased it's depth, my friend Jackie at 3'6" or so had to swim the entire way, but I found myself a nice stick to use as a shepherd's staff.

I was closing in on fourth and by now he was walking large sections of the hills. I was warming up and it spurned me on to push on the hills. Half a mile later and we were met by six blondes, dressed as angels, offering jelly babies to the sound of Eye of the tiger. I hugged and kissed each one in turn to their delight and even got a hug from the medic, before finally hitting some flat trail through the woods, over the sands, picking up forth on the way and running in to the finish to hear the announcer say 'and here comes David Hellard our first vetera .... err, the oldest person to finish the race so far.' His slight awkwardness made me chuckle and it appeared that the veteran prizes had been scrapped this year.

Ahead of me Ross had raced off to build a comfortable lead, before slicing his knee open and cramping as he entered the bog and having to be dragged out by an elite team of SAB divers. Joe had caught up with a runner called flash Gordon, before losing a sprint for the line, but little did they know that a gentleman called Guy Matthews, storming to the finish in 2.39 proclaimed himself the winner upon crossing the line to the approval of the crowd. Stewards enquiry all round.

Sprint finish

So Hell Down South was relaunched and boy have they done a good job. They managed to add 10 minutes to my time without changing the distance. The course was far harder, partly due to the water, but imagine this 3 degrees below, covered in snow; we might have got off lightly. The total ascent of the course is still roughly the same, but the course now deviates from well worn trails to across brush, through woods and slippery, rocky descents. It's unpredictable, it's dangerous (only if you make it so) and it's blooming marvelous.

Well done to trail plus, it was a great event before, but they've upped it from fun race for all, to a course that can challenge even the best of trail runners and reminded us that even though there are plenty of assault course races out there, if you plan a course well, mother nature can be just as cruel. See you next year.

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