Survival of the Fittest at the Burnham Beeches Half Marathon

They recorded the hottest temperatures in the UK this weekend. What is a better way to take advantage of the Great British Summer being in full swing than visiting a beautiful nature reserve? …I mean, run 13.1 miles around it?

Burnham Beeches in Farnham Common is one of the most picturesque ancient woodlands of Britain and is only about 25 minutes drive from me. The Nature Reserve is famous for its beech and oak pollards, many of which are more than 400 years old. The woodland is rich in wildlife – more than sixty of the species of plants and animals here are either rare or under threat nationally. The close proximity of Pinewood, Shepperton and Bray Film Studios and the outstanding natural beauty of the beeches have made it a desirable filming location – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1) are just two of the most recent films and TV productions to mention.

Over 700 runners gathered on the lawn of Caldicott School to brave the heat which was already excruciating at 9am. As I was doing some gentle warmup and stretching in the shade, I ascertained that it was probably going to be the hottest day I had even experienced in England during my 5 years of living here. I was already covered in sweat before I even made a move towards the start line. So I quickly started devising a survival strategy in my head to get through the race without fainting, heat exhaustion or dehydration. The sight of the ambulance- and first aid crew made me think they will probably highly utilised on a day like this!

The potential of achieving a PB result slowly started to fade away. Knowing that a hot weekend was ahead, I made sure to drink plenty before going to bed the night before and during breakfast then just before the start – carefully timing these as getting to go to the toilet on race day can be a very tricky thing. I knew I had to take advantage of the drinking stations positioned every 5k on the route. After applying a generous serving of sunscreen, I lined up at the Start line, hoping for the best because at that point that was the only thing I could do.

The turnout was quite good despite the heat; a lot of families arrived together, with one parent staying behind with the kid(s) to enjoy a picnic on the lawn or to have a dip in the school’s swimming pool whilst their other halves were doing the run.

After the gun went off, the long serpentine of runners including myself quickly disappeared into the forest. I was thankful that most of the route was covered in the shade of the trees. The atmosphere during the run was surprisingly quiet – the soft tapping of 713 pairs of feet on the pavement was almost completely absorbed into the silence of the forest. Even though it was not forbidden, I decided not to put on my iPod music so that I could take in the natural noises and scents even more. What I immediately grew to like about this race is that we were able to run on the road all the way through, whilst practically still being in the forest.

We did two laps, and after the first one about half way I started to feel the heat taking its toll on me. Every movement was becoming more laborous, and I was gradually losing my pace. I looked at my iPod screen and I could see that if I was able to maintain my pace for the second lap, I could easily beat my Wycombe Half Marathon time. However, given I was coming so close to hitting the dreaded wall, I had to lower my expectations. So I changed tactics and decided to attach myself to a couple who dictated a challenging but maintainable pace. Things did not improve much for me as I started to feel like a steamy, heavy legged locomotive. I kept pouring water on my head and my face but after a while, the taste of my own sweat and the water I was sipping became undistinguishable… I even found myself cursing a few times during the last 2-3 miles which seemed to drag on forever. Seeing each mile marker was a moment of redemption.

Whilst I was struggling on the final stretch, I tried to think a bit more positively telling myself that “If I get through this without puking or being the one who collapses on the side of the road like a puppet because of heat exhaustion, then I consider this to be a successful race.” It was enough to take a look around myself to ascertain I was among those runners in a better shape. For example, I saw a lady being so desperate for the loo that she simply decided to do a “Paula Radcliffe” by the side of the road in full view of everyone; I also saw at least one guy lying by the side of the road and being attended to by the marshals; and another one simply collapsed straight in front of me; and finally, I saw lady puking on all fours just after the finish line! All of this was quite unsettling. (And I am being very euphemistic here!)

In the end, I was able to complete the run in 1 hour and 56 minutes – at one point during the last mile I felt quite humbled as I had to resort to walking for a bit, I felt so overcome by the heat by that time. Quite conveniently, at my lowest point I just happened to be near a pub and I was quite tempted to go in for a cold pint of cider! However, the the competitive side of my brain overtook the rational side of my brain saying “Perhaps not such a great idea to go in for a drink when I can still beat the 2 hour mark”. So dragged myself on. Not sure if the organisers planned this deliberately, but there were at least 3 other pubs along the race route.

When I looked at the race pictures later, there was one showing me crossing the finish line with a rather painful expression on my face! Just to have a bit of laugh, I have done a bit of photoshopping to share my triumphant arrival at the finish line with my readers:

A Jess Ennis-like arrival into the finish line – not…

Needless to say that after completing the race, all I wanted to do was to crawl under a bush in the shade in the company of a bottle of cold water and my half melted (and very hard earned) Mars chocolate bar. I felt shattered and completely put out of action for the rest of the day, I had to keep drinking and even had a nap at my in law’s place after the family lunch, completely disregarding any respectful behavior. I firmly believe that my mother in law’s legendary lasagna and my father in law’s delicious fruit truffle saved my life that day!

Reading all this it may sound like it was a race from hell, but I have to say that despite of the extreme weather, I did enjoy the beautiful and tranquil location, the nicely undulating surface and the atmosphere. The marshalls were good, too – one of them even asked me what I thought of the race and whether I was planning to come back next year, I paused only for a moment and gave him my genuine verdict – I would definitely want to come back but hopefully the weather will be much kinder to us!

In the end, I did return to the nature reserve in Burnham Beeches later and it eventually became one of my favourite running locations after work (it conveniently happens to be on the way home AND parking is free during the week!)

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