I am taking some time off from work, so what is a better way to kick start a week than with a good ol’ fashioned cross-country 10k in the Chiltern Hills? A few of my running buddies signed up for the infamous Frieth Hilly race, so I didn’t want to feel left out. Obviously.
This was also a very special occasion as the race celebrated its 10th birthday this year, offering runners the original 10k route and a slightly flatter 5k run. With its route through some breathtaking scenery across the Chilterns countryside, this race is known to be one of the most inspiring and toughest in the area – it does exactly what it says on the tin! Another reason to enter is to support a good cause – all funds raised on the day go towards Frieth Primary School.
Last year, the race attracted Team GB runners and Olympic athletes as well as many club runners and novices, from places as far as London. The highest number I saw on a bib was 506 (and that was a hand-written one), so the event is getting extremely popular.
This is no surprise – I was really impressed with the impeccable organising and the amazing support we received from the local community. There was plenty of free parking a few minutes from the race HQ, where the volunteers greeted us with a taste bud tantalising cake sale and plenty of jelly babies. A tuck shop was erected outside the school by Runners Retreat from Marlow for last minute emergency purchases. There was even a crèche for parents to drop off their little ones whilst they were braving the hills… At the end, there were bacon butties and hot drinks waiting for the finishers. Need I say more?!
The warm up was led by the increasingly popular Immortal Fitness guys who are taking the Marlow-Wycombe-Hambleden area by storm with their challenging but fun OCR and functional fitness outdoors classes. The warm up was a good giggle as I found myself grabbing onto and wrestling with a complete stranger. Despite all appearances, this was meant to mobilise the shoulders and not eliminate your opponents before the race even started. Before we headed off to the start line, there was just one more thing left: the local priest lady blessed us and said a little prayer for us, asking for God’s help as we were going to enter the ‘shadow of the valley of death’ just before half way in the race – and indeed, as it transpired later, we needed all the help we could get to survive!
The 5k runners and 10k runners had a different starting point which seemed to confuse a few people – I met a lady at the end who somehow managed to start in the wrong crowd and then lose her way completely, cutting out most of the race route! I’m not sure how she managed to do that as the course was well marshalled all along, with people shouting from the side of the road ‘10k runners only’, so I personally would have found it really hard to get lost.
Different runners approach this race differently – some people suggest starting with a conservative pace to preserve energy for the hillier segments later. In my view, the right strategy is the one that works for you. Know your strengths and play to your strengths. For example, I can maintain a fast pace for long on flat surfaces, but I am no mountain goat but more like a heavy locomotive when it comes to running up hills. However, I can recover quickly. So my master plan was to give it my all during the first 3.5 kms – it is all downhill, so it was time to put my engine into top gear as I was flying descending down into the valley. Enjoy this fast segment and the gorgeous autumn views, while it lasts, but make sure to watch where you are going, as the terrain is uneven and quite narrow in certain places. I glued myself to a club runner lady who seemed quite fast – I knew I would lose her as soon as we start going up the first hill, but this was a useful strategy to keep up the momentum. Shortly after passing the Frog pub in Skirmett, you can brace yourself to be greeted with the first hill.
I found myself slightly out of breath and my heart was trying break out from my chest upon hitting this first hill. So I switched into power walking to regain my energy and most importantly, to avoid face planting myself in full view of everyone. I kept pushing myself to run up the shorter hilly segments that followed, no matter how slow, and then recovered and picked up the pace again on the downhilly bits. This way I was constantly moving with an even effort, and managed to hit the halfway mark in 24 minutes. I felt really chuffed about that, however, I knew it was not time to celebrate yet, with plenty more juicy surprises to come. It was a definite advantage to know some of the route from our Saturday group runs, and we even ran this exact route together a while back, so I knew what I was in for.
I felt that time was passing really quickly during the race, I was hitting the km markers without needing to glance too much at my watch, nudging the numbers to go up. I kept telling myself that the faster I ran, the quicker the ordeal would be over.
I started to struggle quite a bit at around 6 kms, and my legs felt like cement after those punishing hilly segments. Fortunately, some water from the next drinking station and the children’s choir just round the corner was a great mental and physical boost as I was coming out of the woods (quite literally), this put the speed back into my legs and they started to feel less heavy. I even managed a smile for the photographer, pretending the race had been a breeze for me.
I felt my energy properly returning once we reached the final third of the route; I dictated a relentless pace for myself and the few guys who glued themselves to me. I pushed myself as hard as I could – I did not sign up for this race to do sightseeing! Some more pleasant downhilly bits greeted us on the final mile which I was immensely grateful for. I spent the final km psyching myself up for that last, infamous hill which was still standing between me and the finish line. I glanced at my watch and I calculated that I could just manage a 53 minute 10k if I do not stop or slow down too much on that final bit. I reminded myself that it was going to hurt, but the pain was only going to be temporary, and the pride and joy I would feel after finishing would stay with me for the rest of the week.
That final hill is THE boogey-man in this race. I would personally rename it to ‘Heartbreak Hill’ – many places are won and lost on that hill. Thankfully, there is abundant support on the final few hundred metres – when there are so many people enthusiastically clapping and cheering for you, slowing down to a walk would feel like you are letting them down!
When I finally reached the top of the hill, huffing and puffing, I noticed my running buddies were cheering for me by the finish line which gave me one final burst of energy to dash through the finish.
I glanced at my watch and registered that I did clock in a 53 minute 10k – which is not too bad, considering the testing terrain. My buddies Andy and Paul also managed to clock the time they had wanted, so we all felt very accomplished. Dom marginally missed out on bagging a prize for the fastest male from Marlow’s Zac Purchase. Zac is a Double Olympic Medalist in Rowing (Gold in Beijing 2008 and Silver in London 2012), and owner of Zac’s Fitness, a boutique fitness studio in Marlow, so we were not short of celebrities this year!
Our goodie bags were stuffed with healthy treats – freshly picked fruit from a local farm, my favourite snack bar (Primal Pantry), accompanied by a bottle of water.
What I am most pleased with is that I was able to run strong all along, without the usual nagging fear deep down about injuring myself because I am pushing myself too hard. I don’t want to get carried away, though, and think I’m invincible just because I have been clocking in really good times in races lately. I need to continue to look after my running engine and remain disciplined with my nutrition, my recovery routine and cross training. I owe that much to this awesome, imperfectly perfect body that has carried me through so many challenges so far, with plenty still left to tackle!
What races have you done or are you going to do this autumn?
Official race photos by Barry Cornelius, Oxonraces.com