Monday, 5 November 2012

Running through Hell

From the moment I hit submit on the entry form for the 2012 Hell Up North Hellrunner I had been dreading this race. I had a very definite game plan. One that would not be fun.

I have been entering Hellrunner off and on since it was first held in Delamere Forest around 2006. It's a fantastic mix of glorious trails with steep hill reps (the Hills of Hell) and chest deep freezing mud (the Bog of Doom). Back in that first year I was new to running, hadn't really done any trail running and was about 20kg heavier than I am now. It was a tough old day in the forest and I finished a broken man in around 500th place. The last time I entered was two years ago when I was racing my workmate, the super-competitive Barry. I managed to duck inside the top 100 on the Saturday event (and more importantly beat Baz!). This year I secretly wanted to go top 50.

So, how would I go about getting a top 50 place at Hellrunner? Simple! I would line up at the front of the field, beast myself over the hill at the start then hang on by my findernails for 10 miles. Now you can see why I wasn't looking forward to this!

The morning started really positively, with a nice walk in with Alan then a chat with a bunch of Spartans. We were taking just shy of 30 to this event (which is afterall on our turf) along with families so there was a great atmosphere.

Time to line up and I moved right to the front, just two rows back. After some taunting from the Devil Himself the airhorn sounded and off we stormed into the red smoke. The climb up Old Pale is familiar ground on our club's Tuesday sessions so it was really easy to gauge a hard-but-not-suicidal pace. As we approached the summit it seemed bizzar to be in Hellrunner and only have a hand full of people ahead of me. Even more bizzar was the thought that there were 2100 runners behind me.

I overtook a few people on the way up but was passed by maybe ten or twenty. Charlie and Kev were the only two Spartans ahead of me and as they are both superhuman I never expected to be able to challenge them. If another white shirt appeared I would tag them but apart from that I would stick to my own pace.

Over the top and we hit the descent; now it's time to pass everyone who went by me on the climb. I open my stride, add in some bounce and accelerate to fly through the field. Except everyone's going just as fast as I am. Remember you're at the front of the field this time Steve! I go tearing down the hill, shoulder to shoulder with another runner. We're both running out of control and each time we hit a corner we are trusting whoever has the inside line not to drift too far and wipe the other one out. Fun? I could sell tickets for this!

We hit the flat and loop back towards the start line for a pass through the supporters before heading into the forest. I am dying on my feet, just as I had planned. I guess that's good then! Nick pulls onto my shoulder and we run through the start area side by side. "Come on Steve...this is OUR forest". "Weeeeze.....yeah....gasp....".

We head out on fabulous single track trails, Nick generally setting the pace and me holding on. "Time to re-group" says Nick. Sounds good to me. It strikes me that it would be amazing to finish together...but that's still a long way away. We're holding our own and enjoying the running and I feel good enough to start taking turns in front. Just before we cross the road I pass a couple of people and find that Nick's no longer with me.

Through the Puddle of Peril without too much drama and as we hit the fire trails I put in some more effort and start moving past a few people. The plan was to be hanging on for dear life at this point, hating every step. But I am no longer sticking to the plan. I have a HUGE smile on my face; working hard but loving this race.

Hey, is that a Spartan Shirt ahead? Looks like Big Jase. I was certain he was behind me, I wonder where he overtook me? I pull up behind him as we hit the singletrack again and I have to laugh; I am working my ass off but J is just jogging along chatting to another runner about the High Peak 40. I jog along with them but I'm not talking...I don't have the spare breath for it. The trail opens up and I wish him the best and pull ahead. It turns out he'd got a little lost and had cut a corner. Once he realized he jogged back through the field to run in with Paul A. Getting lost in Sparta! Maybe it's time to revoke his club membership?

I continue drifting up the field with a silly grin on my face. Through the Hills of Hell with my legs intact and as we turn towards the finish I'm running in a bubble of about four runners, with the second placed lady just ahead. I know from previous years that we have some single track to go, then the Bog of Doom and then the finish. Actually, not this year! We turn a corner and are directed by a marshal into a lake.

The water is numbingly cold. I'm splashing along behind another guy when he suddenly disappears  I'm next and as the water hits my stomach it absolutely takes my breath away. We quickly realize that there is a ridge somewhere in the black, icy water and it's not a good idea to step off it. I pull ahead, aiming to get close to the lady in front. She's really handy: every time we reach a hole in the "path" she disappears under the water and reappears with a loud yelp. It's a perfect warning for me to watch my step. :-)

The water goes on forever and by the time we climb out my legs are totally numb and by feet feel like they have been replaced by house bricks. We cross the road again and I'm still in the same bubble of four runners. I try a couple of times to break away but they tag me and I get sucked back into the group. Beyond our quartet there's not another runner in sight, just empty trail. This is not Hellrunner as I know it! Where are  the crowds?

I run along with the group until we hit the final stretch of fire trail. I realize that I need to break away now or we'll be together right through the bog and that will mean hard work out-sprinting them at the finish. I put in a big effort and this time I sustain it. It hurts but I manage to pull a 20m gap and I feel the elastic break between us. I'm away!

I enter the bog right behind the second placed lady. I don't really notice the crowds, smoke and music; I'm just focused on getting a good line into the water and keeping my footing. I pass the lady and spend the entire Bog of Doom with people screaming "You're second girl!" at me. I manage to face plant in the water as I turn to acknowledge Neil and team. So many friendly Spartan faces shouting support. Brilliant!

Out of the bog and my legs are lead. As I start the lap of the finish field someone passes me and we have a battle up to the final corner when I put in a sprint to pull ahead. I cross the line in 1:46:17, in 38th place out of 2,113 runners.

I am absolutely delighted with everything about this race. I discovered that I can go out hard in a short race, re-group and still finish strong. Back when I ran that first Hellrunner and finished 500th I never, ever could have imagined that one day I would finish top 50. What a confidence boost! Now all I have to do is figure out how to go top 20 next year!


  1. Another great write-up Steve. Love the comparison photo at the end - you look 6 years younger in the 2012 shot!

    I too had plenty of stretches around 6-9 miles where I was running alone or with just a couple of other runners - certainly an unusual experience in an event with so many competitors!

    I still finished nearly 100 places behind you though - top 75 for me next year I think, or maybe that's not ambitious enough..?!

  2. That does sound like one heck of a run! It’s amazing that you were able to finish in the top 50! I’m sure that really boosted your confidence for your next marathon. I hope you keep on doing this well or better!

    Brandon Pepper