Trail by fire: the ‘fun’ of running up and down hills in forests

Okay, first off, an apology. It turns out to have been quite some time since I posted here. While I’m not presumptuous enough to think people have been hanging on my every word, since I’ve gone to the trouble of doing it for a few years now, the least I could do is post something on a fairly regular basis. I’ll try not to let it happen again.

Anyway, I’ve got a vaguely good reasons for the long break: I got a new job (still within the same company), and making the switch has all been a bit manic.

My new job hasn’t just impacted on my efforts in finding posting here: it’s had quite an impact on my running and general exercise, in all sorts of ways. Let’s focus on one for now.

Long story (relatively) short: my new job involves driving cars. No, I’m not a chauffer, I don’t run a minicab, and I’m certainly not a professional getaway driver. I have a job that involves getting paid to write about cars (yes, they actually pay people to do that sort of thing). And to write about cars, I need to drive cars.

But there’s a problem. I live about a three-mile drive from my office, so my daily commute totals about six miles – and that’s six miles of slow, speed bump-strewn, traffic-filled London roads. Not exactly conducive to driving cars for long enough to write about them.

So, come weekends, I’ve started finding excuses to drive places away from London, in order to get some decent mileage in. And you know what a good excuse to head out of the M25 is? Running.

And it’s been fun. While I’m fortunate enough to live in a part of the Greater London area that is filled with lovely places to run, there are plenty of equally wonderful places further afield – and there are lots of races to choose from.

And that, in somewhat meandering form, explains how I recently (actually, thinking about it, it was some time ago, such has been my tardiness writing this) ended up competing in my first full-blown trail race.

I’ve actually had a hankering to try a trail race for some time, but have largely been put off because, well, they sound really hard. After all, they involve running along muddy and bumpy trails, usually up and down really steep hills. Now, I’m not exactly scared of bumpy surfaces – I actually run on plenty of trails – and I’ve never shied away from hills. But many trail runs courses are built to combine both in deliberately punishing fashion.

But hey, you’ve got to start something. Which is why I got up early on a Sunday in May, and headed out of London down the A3 to Godalming, home of the not-coincidentally named Godalming Run.

Now, the Godalming Run isn’t, it must be said, entirely a trail run. It starts near the town centre on closed Tarmac roads. But the 10k route soon hits the rolling Surrey hills, rising sharply through the town before reaching the grounds of a private school.

Godalming course

And then it turns off the road, and into the woods on the school ground. And as soon as it turns, it started to go up. Sharply up. And then down. Sharply down. And then sharply up again. And then even more sharply up. And then down a bit. And then up a lot more. And then up some more. And then – oh, flipping heck, my legs hurt.

This was not a course the organisers would dare term ‘undulating’. This would fall under the descriptive running category of tough. Or brutal. The moment I hit the first super-sharp uphill section on a soft, muddy trail, I realised what I was in for, and actually laughed to myself. Frankly, it was either that or cry.

The thing I could best compare the course to was Junior Kickstart, a not-entirely-helpful restaurant that will likely only resonate with British readers of a certain age. I’d suggest everyone else go and search for it on YouTube to experience some glorious TV nostalgia.

At times, the climbs were so steep, and the trails so uneven, that running in a normal fashion was impossible. I think I was more waddling at times. Whatever, it hurt in places running doesn’t normally make me hurt in.

Even when the route started to wind back down the very steep hill, it didn’t get any easier. The descents were treacherous on the uneven surface. There was no thought of making back the time spent slowly climbing uphill: the challenge was staying upright.

And when the run finally left the school grounds and rejoined (mostly) roads, it didn’t get much easier. The organisers had included one final hill in the final few kilometers, and it was a big ’un. In fact, it was so long and steep that the fact it was on a sealed surface was of little comfort.

In short, the Godalming Run was tough. Really tough. How tough? Well, my finish time of 46m 04s is officially the slowest I’ve ever closed for a 10k race – by several minutes. Yet, on that course, the time was an achievement up there with my first sub-40m 10k (set on a ridiculously flat and smooth course). That’s backed up by the fact I finished 18th out of 377 finishers which is… quite pleasing, really.

Trail running, then. It’s tough, but there’s a real sense of achievement to simply conquering the course that you don’t necessarily get with a ‘normal’ road race. I can see the appeal now.

I’m not going to make a full-time switch to off-road running, by any means. But I’ve now got a hankering to try a ‘full’ trail run, one that starts and finishes in a forest. It’s certainly an occasional challenge I’ll look to work into my racing schedule – especially since I’m looking for excuses to head out of London…

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