The school playing field, on a Saturday, was a place I never knew. The only time I saw it, as substitute at hockey. we won 3-1, but the hockey coach refused to bring me on. I wasn’t picked again.
Now, thirty years later, I’m on the playing field again. I’ve picked up my number from the teachers in the gym, and ticked my name off on the list. And this time I’m ready, more or less.
There are a few of those long-nosed and lanky-legged running club runners you so often see in a local race – I can see them warming up around the track. But there are many more nervous housewives and out-of-training Dads, sipping anxiously on their water bottles. Revenge for a school career of sporting failures lies tantalisingly within my reach.
It’s just a local race, and whilst the 10 km distance has never been my favourite, at least I won’t be last.
At the signal, we wander, all seven hundred of us, round the school, under the railway line, and out into a housing estate. A start banner is slewed roughly across the street between two trees, and there’s a teacher with a whistle at the ready. The hated gym master, no doubt.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll count you down, very s-l-o-w-l-y,’ he lies, and then he suddenly blurts out ‘threetwoonego’ and we’re off.
I’ve been injured recently, so I take it gently down the road at first. It’s fun, but it really doesn’t last.
Around the corner, there’s an unexpected 100 metres of stiff climb lurking, and I can tell the runners from the strugglers straight away. I try to hide my true colours, and put my head down, running as slowly and as determinedly as I can. It nearly works, and fortunately there’s a narrow gate at the entrance to the park ahead, and we all have to wait twenty seconds or so to filter through. Fantastic.
And then it really starts. Down narrow paths, twisting single-file through the woods. A second gate, and one mile on, a stile. It seems that a minute of waiting goes by here, but I’m not complaining, just adjusting. There’ll be no fast time today, and one hour looks good from here.
Five minutes go by within the woods, and then the 4 km route peels off left, and we turn right, blinking into the open sunshine again at last. On the other side of the hedge ahead, there’s a soggy bit of field, and then another hill, so I gangle up it with all the rest.
The sky unfurls itself into the distance as the countryside opens up. We grind over green fields, with ankle-twisting clumpy tufts of grass, and patchy paths of rutted, dried out mud.
Trees, hedgerows. Another stile or two. A lake. A wider track up a steep hill, which twists for so much longer than it first appeared. A perfect place to overtake at last, but we’re all struggling painfully as a pack together, and so I grit my teeth and burn my lungs out in line instead.
There’s a drinks station at 5 km and a huge dustbin just ten metres on. But I can’t sink the water fast enough, and so I stop, and breathe, and gulp, and pitch the cup right there. There’s no question of littering the Earl of Onslow’s land, after all.
We wander round and round the estate. Back to the lake, and then up another hill. Past waving, wildly smiling marshals at every turn.
There’s a tall blonde amazon loping a hundred metres ahead, and slowly I set about a chase. Reeling her in slowly, I can see the racy sunglasses, sleek black lycra and huge wide shoulders, and I know for certain. She’s a triathlete.
We run across an open meadow – and around a barn – it’s exactly like a Hash Run, this, but without the beer. Triathlon Girl is only just ahead now, as we stumble down a slope and through a gap in the hedge into the next field.
‘Two kilometres to go,’ cries the marshal, and Triathlon Girl makes her move. At twenty metres up, she lifts the pace, and I lose sight of her somewhere down in Merrow Woods. I won’t catch her now, but at least I’m running faster, and we’re almost home.
There’s no wait at those stiles or gates now. We chase each other along a narrow path uphill, then down a trail between the houses and back onto open road again. The street falls steeply beneath my feet, and I lengthen my pace, bounding like a demented rabbit with a slightly dodgy knee.
Round the corner, and into the closing straight … but wait – there’s no finish here, and we run through the railway underpass instead, around the gym and back onto the school playing field. Where it all began, all those years ago.
I hustle a banana, and find a drink with friends. The sun is out, with folks strewn all around, lazing in the lush spring grass. Some excited schoolkids are selling drinks from an empty stall, and so I wander over to score a tea whilst I ponder my verdict on this event.
And it’s very different from any you’ll read by all those disgruntled complainers on Runners’ World.
Superbly organised, brilliantly marshalled, with a friendly atmosphere and lovely scenery all around a testingly hilly, rough and rutted off-road course. That’s the Clandon Park Run 10 km, in a nutshell.
But much more importantly, it was fun.