We all do it: book races because they sound great. Friends extol the virtues of this or that race and you go: “Ooh! I might try that.” I’m partly the “ooh” brigade and partly inner self-challenger. Let’s face it: we don’t choose easy races. Come to think of it, which races are easy? It’s called a race for a reason.
At the start of 2017 I selected a bunch of races with the “ooh” factor: a little uniqueness, a pinch of iconic status and a stirring of utter bonkersness. Why? 2017 was my third year of running and it was about success and targets: 50 parkruns (and go sub-22), 1,000miles, 13 half-marathons, a marathon and a last-minute ultra-marathon. I had more than 20 races on the calendar and a wife whose eyes rolled every time a new diary noti cation popped up. I wanted to run conversation- sparking races, races to write home about or tell the grandkids (future notion) about. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to chat about racing horses over 22 miles or multi-stage 100km events? The time, medal or T-shirt never came into the self-challenge or the “ooh” factor booking process.
I just wanted to be able to say: “I did it!” The five events I remember here are all out of the ordinary and all appealed to me in different ways.
Two friends were discussing the Hebden Challenge on Twitter; within 15 minutes I was booked. Round Shef eld Run was similar – booked in less than ve minutes. Man v Horse just screamed “iconic race”. Race to the Stones had been on my radar, the timings worked and it’s a race of high standing with great support. Bacchus Half was partly “ooh” … and the thought of running about dressed as a unicorn. Would I compete in each of these races again? Wholeheartedly “yes”, and for speci c reasons. Hebden has a 22-mile option… even grittier. I was injured during Round Shef eld Run so would look to complete it on healthier legs. MvH is 40 years old in 2019… need I say more? RTTS has a one-day option, as if the race wasn’t hard enough. With Bacchus, the fancy dress options are limitless.
My 2017 goal was to get serious with my running but ensure it wasn’t so pressured that I’d lose my mojo by August. By October I had already hit 800 miles out of my proposed 1,000. I managed a sub-22 parkrun (20m59s) and completed more than 10 half marathons. The ultra-marathon box is ticked, and I will do more because it’s such an amazing journey… maybe not 100km, though. The marathon, an of cial 26.2, happened in December, an extremely tough event around a tank training ground, dressed as tank commanders.
Despite my middling years, this is the start of a much longer journey. I have my first international marathon booked in April, plus I have enough points to set the ball rolling for consideration of entry into the OCC at the UTMB. It’s all about the hills.
HEBDEN CHALLENGE: 15 MILES, 4H08M30S
The shorter 15-mile “fun-run” (just the 4,000ft of ascent) awaits me and around 399 other suitably garbed runners and walkers. The more serious bunch can have their extra seven miles; lurgy and Christmas have curtailed my training leaving me short on miles in my legs.
You only have to think Yorkshire and for some a nose bleed ensues. It ain’t flat like yer cap. Plus I had no plans to go off whippet-style. It’s hilly, neither gentle nor rolling, but steep, rate steep. The first ascent hit within two miles and it brought even the hardiest of runners to a slow walk. Britain in winter doesn’t boast many clear days; today wasn’t one of them. This made the views on top even grittier.
Inner grit was the order of the day. Having never run more than 13.1 miles, I planned to pace the 15 miles steadily and with less of a gung-ho attitude than I’d have in a road race. Yet you have to be sharp about keeping an eye on both the runners in front of you and your map, as the route is self-guided. Fall off the back without a clue of how to map-read, you’re in for a long day in the hills.
The route climbed out of Hebden on this cold and damp January morning. At times the rain came down, and if it wasn’t coming down it was going across, making the initial few miles hard going. Once you got into your stride the key was to keep your eye on your footing, as the terrain was far from level. Occasionally you’d glance up to keep the other eye on the landscape – despite the weather and the cloud, the views were incredible. One minute you were on a rocky path with water rushing down smooth Yorkshire gritstone, the next you could be looking out over open moorland, with the Pennine Way stretching to the horizon. The differing vistas kept you alert, despite the 5am start for pre-race fuelling.
This was one of those races best described as a three-course meal with a run between each course. Food consisted of sandwiches heavy with beef dripping or a solid ploughman’s, washed down with mugs of tea, lots of proper Yorkshire tea. Cakes piled up high, with a crowning glory of Stollen – this being the firm favourite. If you weren’t fast you were last, with all the Stollen being snapped up by the early arrivals.
This is a race lled with glory. You’ll finish it feeling stuffed to the gills. If you could snap it in half like a stick of rock, it would have a fissure of gritstone running right through the middle, spelling the words “Made in Yorkshire”.
MAN V HORSE: 23 MILES, 4H32M52S
Looking for an event with a hook? Here it is! Man v Horse is an iconic race, now in its 38th year, pitting human against horse against hill. That’s 600 humans against 60 horses against 5,000ft up and 5,000ft down. Have I mentioned the mud?
Llanwrtyd Wells claims to be Britain’s smallest town. The Neuadd Arms Hotel acts as the focal point and start of MvH. Come Saturday morning the small indiscreet area in front of the pub is awash with around 1,000 people. Some are here to see runners off; the remainder are there to be seen off! I’m in the latter part of the equation and for the first time in many years I have butterflies in my stomach. I’ve been excited about this race since the moment I booked it.
The baying crowd is fed a glimpse of the horses as they file up the road; boos and hisses are thrown their way from the runners. It’s tradition and it’s fun. The mayor addresses details some gratifying words, the sponsor says their bit, the rules are read aloud and duly corrected by the stalwarts in the crowd. An injured MvH race veteran counts us down. Crap! This is it, we’re off! I’ve never raced 23 miles before.
We amble down the road; Salomon Speedcross 4s aren’t made for wet asphalt, but this is where we’re at. The road is rolling away under my feet to become a narrow track, slowly edging upwards, when I notice the time. It is 11.15. I mention to those around me that the horses have been “released” (runners are given a 15-minute head start) then around a couple of minutes later there is a holler from behind: “HORSE!” I turn to see the first beast cantering up the slope, closely followed by around six other horses. It was magnificent; you wouldn’t get this on a city 10km.
So I focus on the job in hand, moving forward reasonably slowly. Why? Simply, if you’re not going down, you’re going up and generally it’s steep. At mile four we come to a standstill; there’s a narrow downhill section over grass, leading across a thin line of water into an even narrower track leading back up a slope, with a mud stream owing down it. Once you’ve traversed this, you’re into a half mile section of trail. Well, it resembled an OCR… we wade, knee-deep in places through a Welsh jungle. This is the best!
From here the route undulates over road, track, fell, forest and what feels like a mountain. Horses pass you by with friendly shouts from the riders of “Mornin’” “Afternoon”, or a simple “well done”. On the odd occasion we pass a horse that’s slowed up because of the difficult terrain. Now I’m not a horsey person, but to see these beasts up close and working this hard exemplifies what the horse is going through; this race is tough for everyone. Riders must stop at the halfway point for a vet check – this is mostly for the horse, not the rider!
The on-course camaraderie is first-rate. I’ve run road races where you might as well be the only person on the course. Every time you pass another runner there’s a shout of “Well done, buddy” or “Come on… it’s just a short hill compared to that last one.” I play yo-yo was one particular runner: he’d overtake me, then I’d overtake him and so on. We walked one of the final hills and enjoyed banter about running, life and the universe.
Finish line crossed, I was elated, and I’d beaten at least one horse. In fact, I’d beaten 22 horses in a shade over four-and-a-half hours. Time is irrelevant on an event like this; it’s about being part of the race, with runners who want an adventure, on a course that tests human resilience and in conditions that measure mental attitude. I’d done it. I had finally completed a race that had been at the forefront of my mind for quite some time.
Click here to read the full story at Like the Wind Magazine and to view the latest edition. It’s not How to Run, it’s Why We Run.
Jason Randall thinks that trail running signifies pure running; the muddier, hillier, more scenic the better! Fuelled by peanut butter and jam sandwiches. @outrunninghills
Rhiannon Parnis is a Cardiff-based illustrator and graduate of BA (Hons) Illustration at Cardiff School of Art and Design. www.rhiannonparnis.com – @rhiannonparnis