The Main Event
The Cheddar Gorge Half is not a race for the faint of heart or poor of balance, finds RW’S John Carroll
The Cheddar Gorge Half Marathon
To reach the start of the 2016 Cheddar Gorge Half Marathon in Somerset, competitors had to walk up a woozily steep forest track that was littered with rocks and writhing with roots. Overnight the rain had come down so heavily it was as if God had leapt out of the bath to answer the phone, so the trail was sloppy and slippery. It did get my heart going but when I reached the top and the hill flattened out I soon became cold in the sharp wind.
The race (there is also a 10K and a full 26.2), which is sponsored by the National Trust, is known as a challenging event: this is specious nonsense. Particle physics is challenging, but you can always give up and do an Arts degree instead. This race is – how to put this – a right bastard. After only about 200m the route rose sharply and some people were reduced to a walk before they had developed any kind of running rhythm. I was one of these people. I may have been all of them.
Next up was the first of many rocky sections. This one was downhill, and some runners seemed to be moving from one rock to the next as if they were dancing on clouds. Me? I applied the brakes, but the brakes did not work. I was wearing trail shoes with a tread so aggressive they were likely to pick a fight, but it still felt as if the rocks were rolling beneath me like ball bearings.
A stile (or two) and a wooded section followed and then the route calmed down for a spell, taking us along the
edges of open fields. But even this wasn’t easy, as the path looked as if it had been carved out with a teaspoon. It was narrow and high-sided, which meant we had to be careful where we placed our feet. Mine were shifting from side to side in my shoes, and this was beginning to take its toll on the skin just below my Achilles tendons. On our left and right, nettles brushed against bare legs and arms. Moving as quickly as I could and distracted by the growing discomfort of my growing blisters, I was sure I would not notice the familiar hot sting of the nettles, or notice the bubbly white rash. I was wrong. Luckily, we then turned into some nice, cold, juicy bog: raw flesh just loves the unrivalled comfort of wet socks. I tried to aim for clumps of bog grass, but even these sank into the mire under the pressure of my foot. I had tied my laces tightly, so I was not too worried about losing a shoe, but I was concerned about losing my balance. I stopped being concerned after my arm had disappeared into the ground for the second time
At five miles I paused to take in the views of the Mendip Hills, which even on this cloudy, low-lit day were grand. Then I fell, hard, cutting my hands on the gritty, slick rocks. Damn you, marvellous scenery.
Another runner noticed the blood snaking down my arms. ‘Are you OK?’ she asked.
‘Yep,’ I said, nonchalantly waving my bloody paw. Then I fell again. ‘And now?’ she asked. ‘Less so, but still fine,’ I chirruped. I had eight miles to go and I was already heavy-legged and clumsy. The immediate future did not look too good.
The race is well organised and marked, and the marshals (some from Avon and Somerset Search and Rescue) offer plenty of encouragement, but I could have done without the two narrow outand-back sections. The first was manageable, but the second, around mile eight, was cruel. The track was rocky and boggy, the sides were high and the traffic both ways was constant. Some competitors (all men, I have to report) seemed to be gunning for a PB and made no attempt to allow for those coming the other way. For a while, I found myself disliking other runners.
From there it was uphill again. At this point I had the feeling feral cats were using my Achilles tendons as scratching posts, so I stopped to assess the damage. There was a red-ringed blister just below each tendon and there was not a thing I could do about it. Passing runners – for whom my feelings of affection had returned – asked if I was OK and I said I was, because, really, what else could I say? I pulled my socks higher, tightly retied my shoes and pushed on. At the top of the hill a marshal called out, ‘You all right?’ ‘Fine. Blisters on the Achilles.’ ‘Hmm. Bummer.’ Because, really, what else could he say?
Back to the bog and we did not even both to try finding dry spots: there were none. This was all about simply, and slowly, following in the deep footsteps of others.
Miles 10 and 11 featured another out-and-back section, this one stonier, albeit drier, than the others. Some runners looked wiped out, pale and stumbling, while others bounded with unseemly glee. As I bumbled along I had two conflicting thoughts: I’m going to finish this, and, How bad can the Hell Steps be?
The Hell Steps come at around the 12-mile point; they are a series of wood-buttressed steps built into a hill and at the end of a race such as the Cheddar Gorge Half they’re not a welcome sight. However, it was like being asked if, after a series of tortures, you were ready to face the terror of the cat-o’- 10- tails! The steps were a slog but they’re by no means the worst this race has to offer.
From there it wasn’t easy, exactly, but I could hear the noise from the finish and I was feeling pleased with myself. More than once I had considered walking the rest of the route – I was tired, I was sore, I was cold, I was wet and I was tired again. But I kept going. And then, after 3:08 and all of a very slow sudden, it was over.
My arms were streaked with blood, my legs were caked with mud and my heels were so painful I slid along rather than lifted my feet, but I felt happy and proud. There is no shame in giving up when you have nothing left, but the problem is knowing for certain when that point arrives. I thought I was done, but I wasn’t. It’s a fine, fine feeling.
On the walk back down to the road I fell again, landing hard on my arse and sliding for several metres.
‘You OK?’ asked a woman on my right. It was, of course, the same runner who saw my first midrace fall.
‘I don’t mind the pain, it’s the indignity that gets me,’ I answered, and she laughed a laugh that said the feeling was surely not new to me. She is a wise woman. The 2017 Cheddar Gorge Half takes place on 10 September (with an easier walk to the start and no out-and-back sections). relishrunningraces.com
TRAIL AND ERROR Hard to believe but these runners are having a tremendous time.
FEET FIRST The Cheddar Gorge Half demands care, attention and just a little bravado.