I have set myself the challenge to complete 12 half marathons in 12 months. I ticked off my first one last month, at Hampton Court, and I was really looking forward to my next one in March.
The Ridge Off Roader Half Marathon is a new race in my area, which was organised by a local primary school to raise funds for their charity, the Bledlow Ridge School Association. This race turned out to be a slightly different kind of beast to tackle in every respect, as you will soon find out! Let me just say it upfront that this race is not for the faint-hearted. This is the most hard-core, bitchiest, hilliest and wettest cross country race I have ever completed! And the nutcase I am, I bloomin’ loved (most of) it, in a slightly masochistic way.
To Race or not to Race?
Due to the exceptionally rainy conditions and storm Doris paying a visit not long ago, I had my doubts that the race would even go ahead. Fortunately, the organisers were really good at keeping us runners posted on their Twitter page about their plans, and I was relieved to find out on the morning of the race that the whole shebang would indeed go ahead. ‘Bring on the madness!’ I said to myself in an attempt to psyche myself up for the race, as I was staring out of my window into the relentless rain, and measuring up the mud in our garden.
Determined not to let the rain dampen my mood as well, I gave myself a bit of pep talk whilst I was driving to the race HQ. Yes, it was going to be hard, it was going to be miserable, I was going to get soaked to my skin, possibly end up covered in mud from neck to toe, but does that mean that it was not going to be worth it? Should I let fear and temporary discomfort stand in my way to achieve my goals? I tried to look at the experience as an adventure, an opportunity to plot out new running routes near home, and a true test of my mental stamina in preparation for bigger things to come.
Rain, rain, and more rain!
I arrived about an hour before the start which gave me plenty of time to collect my race bib, get rid of my baggage, say ‘hello’ to my friend Ali who happens to be the school’s headmaster, and chat to other runners. The other ladies and I had a good giggle about admitting to signing up for the race in a ‘moment of madness’, and how our main objective was ‘survival’ rather than a new PB! It’s better to laugh than to cry, right? Eyeing up the ‘competition’ aka the other 144 runners, my first thought was that everybody looked like a really hard core runner in their club vests, very short shorts, stuffing their faces with jelly babies, firing up their Garmins and muscle rub cream wafting out of the changing rooms. I seriously started to worry about this being the first race where I might come last, as I was definitely not looking or feeling like an ‘elite’ runner! Not that there is anything to be embarrassed about if you do come last, but I just knew I had the potential to do better than that.
Prepping the race medals and goodie bags
The local Zumba Lady and her crew put a smile on my face again by conducting a Zumba-style warmup for us runners, so for a few minutes I even managed to forget about the rain! The mass start was just outside the school – the first 200 metres of the race are on dry roads, so make sure to savour that if you decide to do the race next year. Then…just don’t look at your shoes again until you finish!
The lovely Zumba Lady, Roxanne Hussain brought the smile back on our faces!
Zumba warm-up – we’ve got this!
After said 200 metres, we descended down into the muddy madness, leading us straight onto a section which is the final mile of another local race called Rugged Radnage. If you have done that race before, you know that it is one of the Chilterns’ most dreaded hills! Anyways, I was happy to get that hill out of the way as the first obstacle (a mini psychological victory), and enjoy some familiar views in the pretty village. I quickly realised that my normal road running shoes were completely inadequate for this kind of race – the traction on them being close to zilch, I was effortlessly overtaken by some slightly better prepared runners wearing proper trail shoes or spikes. (Mental note to self: do not skimp on getting a pair of trail shoes!)
One of the most challenging sections of the race was a long and straight bit near Chinnor Road (it sounds good so far, doesn’t it) which was so slippy that I felt like a car spinning completely out of control, with my left foot constantly sliding out to the side underneath me, whilst I was desperately trying to keep myself upright by holding onto some plants and trees on the side. I must have looked like a character from an awkward Charlie Chaplin comedy. Some water and Jaffa cakes later which were offered to us at the next feeding station, we embarked on probably the steepest section of the route at just over the geographical halfway point by Bledlow Great Wood. If it hadn’t been so muddy, I could have easily climbed up to the top on all fours! (You know you are a runner when you put aside all dignity just to get to the finish line.) Other challenging parts included paths which turned into wet mud-slides (honestly, I could have completed the race quicker by skating on my bum than running on my feet!), and my feet completely disappeared a few times in pizza-dough like sludge. Drawing a parallel between the mud and the joys of kneading soft dough was bizarrely satisfying under the circumstances.
After the first hill – still smiling…
The field really thinned out in the latter stages of the race, and I was finding myself running alone for long chunks of time before spotting anyone else. Thankfully, the route was really well signposted so it would have been very difficult to get lost (I only doubted myself once, which is not too bad, considering I can still get lost in my own hometown). I even had the chance to chat to some people which I do not normally do during races, but it is true that trials really do bring out the camaraderie. For example, I met a lady who came from as far as Birmingham to add some hills to her training; and there was a sweet elderly bloke who had just come back from injury and was really happy to be running again. I stuck with him for a while as I needed someone to ‘pull me up’ on one of the longest hills in the race, through a beautiful meadow with sheep grazing on the grass. Like in a painting. If it hadn’t been so grim and foggy, the views could have been even more dramatic!
The Low Point
At about 17km, left running solo, I entered the mental dimension of the race. In a way, I enjoyed the solitude of these final trails and the sound of the rain gently pattering against the branches above me. I retreated to my ‘happy place’ in my head as I was trying to picture myself having a relaxing hot shower after the run and being reunited with my family, eating Sunday roast together. I was actually quite proud of myself for being able to maintain a positive mindset for that long.
I did hit one really low point, though. It came as I reached the final field and my muddy shoes started to weigh me down so heavily that I was starting to look like a decommissioned ‘Imperial Walker’ from Star Wars as I was helplessly trying to squelch my way through. As I looked up from the mud for a moment, to my greatest horror, I noticed that there was a race photographer waiting a couple of metres in front of me, getting ready to eternalise my misery. I knew that I was rocking the look of a labour camp survivor, and I did not want to be captured like that and remember the race like that later. So I just grit my teeth, broke into a trot, smiled at the photographer before I nearly broke into tears when I left him behind the bend. Fortunately, I had one final trick up my sleeve for moments like that, to get myself back on track. I fished out my most treasured GU ‘Chocolate Outrage’ energy gel (the name say it all!) from my sweaty bra and administered a shot of gooey sweetness to lift myself up again. I can only describe the experience as ‘chocolate induced orgasm’.
Focus and determination
One final hill later, I emerged on the paved roads of the village again. Phew! My legs felt like cement after getting so much beating on the hills and in the mud, but I managed to get my pace back after a few minutes, mostly thanks to other runners clapping for me on the side of the road who had already completed the race. I guess one of the perks of finishing in the bottom pack is that you get to reap all the cheering and receive the ‘hero’ treatment! Putting my crappy finish time aside (just for the record, I did not finish last, hehe), I felt on top of the world!
I bumped into my friend Dom from my Saturday running group who did the 10k version of the race that morning (they started an hour later than the half marathoners). He bagged the prize for the second fastest male – well done Dom!!! (Ironically, Dom could run a much faster 10k on this hilly and muddy terrain than I could ever dream of in a pancake flat race! Now you understand why I feared coming last!)
I felt I was managing my physical and mental energy really well during the race. My hot spots (ITB and left knee) were behaving really well during and after the race; I felt my glutes firing strongly so the work I have been putting into doing my prehab exercises in the past few weeks have really paid off!
Despite the treacherous conditions, I still think there are some really good reasons you should try this race next year:-
- Location – If you live in big cities such as London or Birmingham and would love to have a scenic running challenge in the countryside, you can easily get to this race on the M40 motorway or on the Chiltern Railway Line. The nearest train stations are High Wycombe/Saunderton/Princes Risborough, only a few minutes’ taxi ride to the race HQ.
- Variety and challenge – Clearly, this race is not for PB-hunters, however, if you are looking to spice up your running a bit and throw in some hills and different types of terrain, you should look no further. The race is also ideal for those runners who love a bit of adventure but prefer ‘pure running’ to obstacle races where you usually end up queuing and interrupting your run before you can tackle the next obstacle.
- Stunning views – Bledlow Ridge, Chinnor and Radnage are designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. During the race, you will run through green fields, along hedgerows, up hills, along a ridge with breathtaking views across Chiltern Hills and along quiet country roads and farm tracks.
- Seamless organising – Despite it being their first half marathon event, the school did a stellar job with marshalling support and organising the logistics such as feeding stations roughly every 5km, ample parking near the school, portaloos, and plenty of food. Their passion about organising and running this event with a smile on their faces despite the wet conditions was quite evident. I felt I was given a real ‘hero’ treatment by the marshals and supporters during this race, a feeling I will cherish for a long time.
- Jaffa cakes and cookies – The race is simply so tough that you can justify eating any amount of Jaffa cakes and biscuits which are offered at the feeding stations. Life can’t get better than this!
- Supporting a great cause – Your full race entry fee goes towards supporting the school and the children. This year the total amount raised from the races was a whopping £8,500! A great cause to get your sweat on for.
- Affordability – I paid £24 to enter as an unaffiliated runner, and this also included the professional quality race photos. With half marathon races often asking for over £40 to enter, and around £15- £20 for a single race photo, I think this race is a steal!
Maybe come along next year?! C’mon, I know you want to! And let’s hope for less rain and a bit more sunshine 😉
What is the most challenging event or race you have completed? What strategies do you use when you hit a low point during a race?