So two more weeks went by before I laced up my shoes again. The longest break since I started running seven years ago. But then, I’d never run back-to-back marathons before. I may not be trying it again any time soon.
And yet, however much rest I really needed, I knew I’d do the Annual Hash Run.
Just what is that – I hear you ask ? No, not a skilfully planned distribution exercise for prohibited substances, but a social and enjoyable summer run with a load of industry colleagues, following an obtuse trail of flour for an hour or so, and having a lot of fun in the process. The Hares who set out the course lay enough false trails to delay the fast runners, so that the slow ones arrive at the beer stops at around the same time. A sort of orienteering handicap race across the countryside.
I’d probably been running for about three or four weeks, when I was invited to my first Hash Run. By then, I’d upped the distance from a cardiac-threatening single mile to a desperately breathless nearer three, but I had no desire to share my ineptitude. I declined. Same again the following summer. And the next. All those years of ploughing round the school playing field in second-last place, just ahead of fatty Peacock, had left their mark. I was a crap runner, and I knew it.
Finally, someone at work arranged a social evening run along the river. We’d catch a train to Godalming, and run the five miles along the towpath to the pub. Running at the back, I reconciled, at least I’d be sure to avoid the first round. I was second-last home again, but not that far behind a select field of those fit enough, or mad enough, to run the distance. I was ready for the Hash Run.
That first year, I didn’t do any of the searching for trails myself, taking each checking point as an opportunity to breathe. This is my fifth time, and if I’m a little less slow these days, the physical (and, of course, emotional) needs of post-marathon recovery mean that tonight again I’ll be running a more passive role at the back of the pack. But perhaps I won’t be last to the bar afterwards.
Although it seems like yesterday that we were bounding across the fields around Clandon House, a full year has indeed gone past. And whilst previous years have seen us chasing along and up (mostly up) the Surrey Downs, this time the event is being held northwest of London. Fair enough, if that’s where the sponsors are based. But as I dash out of my meeting, I suddenly realise that I’ve a 75 mile drive through the M25 rush-hour to Great Missenden, and only an hour and a quarter to do it. Four-lane contraflows past Heathrow’s Terminal 5, a hundred speed cameras and eight white knuckles not withstanding, somehow I get there.
You can’t really call it a start-line as such. The race starter stands on a bucket in a country pub car-park, yells some half-heard and probably unwisely phrased abuse about virgins, and everyone dashes off across the countryside. In my position in the pack, I never actually see any flour. Nor do I care. I learn later that the trail-layer ran out half way round. It doesn’t matter.
The run starts with an insane yomp straight up the Chiltern Hill beside the pub. Must be 400′ of altitude gain in the first five minutes. The organisers have clearly decided to get the pain over with, but it’s a risky strategy in a mixed-ability field, with a chance of putting the accountants off running for life. I’m not keen, either.
But soon we reach the first water stop, and there’s a chance to re-group. Then off again, down sleepy lanes and past green fields, to the first checking point outside some pretty little whitewashed cottages. Although not far from London, it seems very remote here. For a moment I half expect a rustic yokel to emerge, chewing a wheat straw, until the runner next to me remarks, “Lovely cottages. Must be worth a million quid each, at least.” Do stockbrokers chew straw ?
We’re interrupted by some wild shouts of “On-On” in the distance, and re-find the route. Half an hour or more of chaotic trails, across ripening wheatfields, on crazy three-sided loops around playing fields and village greens, past kiddies’ playgrounds, along green hedgerows, and into a deep oak wood. I’ve gained some distance on the runner behind, and so I wait as we leave the trees, to let those folk behind me find the path. And sure enough, one field later, I stand alone, with neither flour nor any other runner in sight. Here I am, lost in darkest Buckinghamshire, miles from anywhere, remote from roads, far from civilisation or even a signpost to the pub. The direst situation you could imagine.
It’s a great relief, then, when I see that the group who pantingly join me include the bucket-mounting organiser. With wizened wiry limbs, sweating brow, beaming face and muddy legs, he could himself be one of the yokel locals, but it’s the years of demented chasing across the countryside in search of running nirvana, a tranquil soul and beer which fashion his calmly contented appearance now.
A pleasant while more of hopping roots and dodging rabbit holes leads us to the beer stop, and the pack re-forms. Just a short ten minutes of fluid intake and friendly discourse later, and it’s time to start again. Downhill, and steep, it’s too hard for my dodgy legs, which flap uncontrolled beneath me, past brambles, flints and down deeply rutted tracks. But there’s only one more mile of rough grassland and leaping stiles to go, and soon we’re at the Black Horse once more.
A pint or two of beer awaits, served with steak and enjoyed amongst old friends. A pleasant combination at any time, after a five mile cross-country yomp it becomes divine. This evening will go on, I know. More beers, some singing and good fun, with down-downs for those first-time Hashing virgins, for all the experts, and for almost anyone who’s left to listen. But it’s getting late, and my hour’s drive ahead and important morning meeting in London call me homewards.
It’s almost midnight when at last I turn the key in my door. Flashback to another dusk, six months ago, which saw my soggiest homecoming from marathon training last winter. Now all that time seems so far behind, and in the summer evening of the hill, there’s still some blue in the far northwestern sky, beyond Guildford Castle’s bright new floodlights far below.
A gentle run, some beer, some fun, good scenery, good friends, and a midsummer’s night. To run, perchance to dream. It’s a rest cure recipe which is surely hard to beat.
93. On-on ! My life as a Hash Hare
76. A year of running, rainily
97. Only scars carved into stone – a summer 20 miles
42. Twenty six times two – marathon dreams in the Surrey Hills
34. Lines from the Battle of Guildford
57. Blackpool Marathon: Welcome to the Pleasuredome
46. On the front line – Crawley’s echoes of Madrid