I've been eagerly awaiting today's race since I booked it a few weeks ago - it's called Mad Jack's Five and is a five mile off-road run around scenic Attingham Park near Shrewsbury and the River Severn. It's a National Trust property with a deer park, a herd of cattle and woodland. You can read more about it here:
It was probably a bit of bad timing that it was my son's fifteenth birthday yesterday so we went out for a curry last night - now usually I don't suffer any ill effects but my stomach doesn't seem to have recovered from the two types of anti-biotic I was taking last week so I'll just say I was feeling rather delicate this morning
Still, I was determined to run as I've looked forward to it for so long so I picked up my mud-hating friend who I only recently talked into doing this race and we arrived nice and early. After a damp start, the weather had turned bright and sunny, if a bit on the chilly side. We registered and pinned our race numbers on - I had pre-booked and must have been a bit keen as I was number 14 ! There was plenty of time so we risked a nice cup of Earl Grey tea to warm up with, knowing there'd be time for a loo break before heading to the start line.
We met up with several other Telford Harriers, conspicuous in their distinctive green and gold running vests. We knew that we'd soon be watching their back disappear into the distance with us in our usual place near the back of the pack !
The start line was in front of the stately house, we tried to stay at the back so we didn't get trampled by or hinder the faster, competitive runners. To start with the grass was quite long and damp, and the ground was bumpy, probably trodden that way by the herd of cattle we were heading towards. I'd been told that there was just the one water section near to the end but we soon arrived at a wet and muddy swampy section that threatened to suck my shoes off. We set of running again with squelchy feet. My shoes aren't waterproof so the water eventually squelched out but I felt sorry for my friend in her waterproof shoes as the water had come over the tops but couldn't squelch out through the waterproofing !
Neither of us had run any distance on this sort of terrain before and it really was harder work on more of our muscles than road-running is, although I enjoyed the fact that the impact was softer. I think I found it harder to get my breathing right than when I'm running on pavement too and was quite conscious of how loud my breaths were.
We were surprised to come to a "water feature" quite early on in the run - the marshall shrugged and said "It's usually dry" with a big smile on his face. We had to climb a metal fence then down a sharp muddy bank into the cold muddy water, which turned out to be deep enough that I was glad to have rolled my capris up above my knee. It was a few feet accross the ditch, then a slippery, muddy bank up the other side. I was feeling guilty now for talking mud-hating Deb into this and gave her my hand to help her up the bank, but she seemed happy enough in spite of having wet and muddy feet.
We encountered several stiles, a few logs across the track (one to climb over and a few to step over), several long muddy patches, a lovely swamp and a cattle grid. We saw some deer in the distance, then entered the woodland area. By now my stomach was griping rather alarmingly and feeling quite unpleasantly "sloshy" and we weren't halfway round yet ! I found that if I stopped for a short walk every now and then, the pains would ease for a while and I promised myself I'd finish if I had to walk the lot. At the worst moments, I was fearing I would need to disappear into the woods for my own Paula Radcliffe moment and anxiously checked I had some tissues in my belt. A couple of times, I actually doubled up but those moments were brief. As we came out of the woodland the track ran alongside the river (presumably the River Severn) and we could see the people in front doubling back along the other side so there was a lot of waving and cheering going on. We then had to climb over a stile, cross the bridge and run back along the other side of the river. There were three swans on the river and as we passed them, one took flight and the sound of those powerful wings was amazing. It flew in a big loop, swooping back down on to the river - a wonderful sight.
I think we were all finding it difficult by now. Usually, if we were running on road we would have been warmed up and comfortable by now, although my arches would have been starting to hurt a little. On this unfamiliar and more challenging terrain, we were all starting to feel the strain on hip and thigh muscles and were having to take more short walk breaks. On the plus side, as we approached the four mile mark, my stomach had settled down so I could stop fretting about that. The very last stretch was a long hill, with the final and biggest obstacle about half way up. This was a deep, muddy pond to wade through. There was a rope to hold on to at the side but first we had to edge our way down a muddy slope into the water. The water was very cold and came well above knee height. We couldn't see the bottom but it turned out to be quite treacherous, with a sharp slope into deeper water. We were quite glad the rope was there ! By the time we were past the half way mark, the cold was making our feet hurt. There was lots of cheering and encouragement though and we made it to the other side without any mishaps, just a bit of slipping and desperate grabbing for the rope The bank on the far side was very steep and muddy and we clambered up, ready for the last stretch to the finish line. I would love to say we ran from there to the finish but it was uphill and that last pond was quite tiring so we jogged a bit and walked a bit to the top of the hill, Deb told me to go ahead but I really wasn't bothered about my time and we had said it would be nice to finish together so for the final, flat straight stretch to the finish line we held hands and ran, finishing with a big smile. We weren't allowed to finish exactly together so Deb pushed me in front and that was it, all done !
In spite of the set backs, I thoroughly enjoyed it and will definitely want to do it again next year and I shall certainly look for similar events. It was a slower pace than on the road (I think we finished the 5 miles in 1 hour 7 minutes whereas my two 10k races took me 1 hour and 9 minutes) but I loved the scenery and the challenge and the obstacles. After the first shock of cold in the first lot of water, I even loved the sensation of wading through the ponds. There were no medals but there were crates and crates of bananas for competitors to help themselves and commemorative sports bottles were handed out at the finish for us to fill with refreshing cold water. I think it was the most exhilarating of the three races I now have under my belt and although we weren't quick, there were several runners quite a long way behind us and we waited to cheer them on to the finish - they too were all smiles as they finished. I think we all felt a sense of achievement just for having done it - I want to do more of the same, Deb still hates mud but hasn't said never again and she's talking of getting better trail shoes so I don't think she hates me for talking her into it !
If you're thinking of trying an off-road race, get yourself some rail shoes and give it a go !
My shoes might take some cleaning........