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

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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