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.
A feeble sprint stirs my legs, but it doesn’t come to much. I stop my watch at 59:something, by far the slowest 10 km race I’ve ever run. But I can’t help smiling, just the same.
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.
It may have felt less like a 10 km, and much more like a school cross country. It may have been a slow and tough race, with no chance of fast times at all.
But much more importantly, it was fun.
12. 10 km torment in Stubbington Green
58. Running in the North Downs
134. Before the mast: Pewley Down, Guildford
48. Chaucer’s April
138. A winter Sunday on the North Downs
Well you sold it to me – sounds great fun. Although when you started the post I thought you were describing a parents event at the school sports day and I really pitied the poor folk who were pushed into a 10k run just to support their young’un.
There were indeed plenty of those parents running the 4km with their kids. Even that was PG-rated.
They didn’t allow kids onto the 10 km, but one or two still slipped in, despite the X certificate.
This definitely wasn’t the kind of race to suit any of those smokers still lurking behind the bike sheds, though …
I enjoyed the complaints among the Runners’ World comments about the course being “bumpy.” Well, yes, just a few …
Congratulations; glad you enjoyed your return. It looks like a fun event.
Thanks, BB. Bumpy courses come in grades, as you appreciate better than anyone. Those wilderness 50 milers you get up to are certainly well off the scale of bumpiness in UK Runners’ World parlance.
That’s why you do them, I know. And maybe you might be onto something there, as well.
And what a bunch of moaning minnies, eh ?!
“And what a bunch of moaning minnies, eh ?!”
No worse than what I often hear these days in comments regarding stateside urban marathons … if the pre-race expo doesn’t rival a major shopping mall, if the course isn’t completely flat, shaded, and supplied with 50 or 60 water stops, if the finisher’s medal isn’t the size of a manhole cover, the organizers are nailed to the wall.
I suppose if trail running is capable of teaching us anything, perhaps it’s how to deal with something a little beyond our immediate control. As the race director of one ultra I ran put it …
Excellent comment, BB, and I couldn’t agree more. Those people give up their time, a lot of time, for runners like us.
Whee! that race sounds like a blast and does remind me of the races I did on the high school cross country team.
While I can’t fathom people whining about small races put on by individuals out of a love for the sport I can see why people whine about the big urban marathons. Those cost a fortune to enter and likely make a lot of money for those holding the purse strings. I suppose people feel like if they’re going to pay a king’s ransom to enter a big ‘for profit’ race they should get something back for their money.
Sorry I missed it, Roads.
My pre-Flora London Marathon Pasta Party and the send-off for 141 JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) runners took precedence, followed by 10 gruelling, sun-baked hours at the mile 22.5 spot outside Oddbins’ Wine Shop on The Highway.
Quite a day.
Clandon does sound like one for the future, though I’m bound to agree that 10ks are not top of my running wish-list.
Funny I should be catching up with things here just as the Hammers take a 2-0 lead and Blackburn a similar advantage against Charlton. Exciting times with a few twists to come yet.
Well done, Sweder. It’s the fantastic effort put in by all the charity organisers and runners which in part make London the extraordinary race it is.
Two matches in another desperately nailbiting Premiership season to go, and the last of all against your beloved Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Let’s just hope that the Mighty Reds have the title firmly decided in their favour by then, with only West Ham’s survival or relegation left to play for …
I loved hearing what you had to say about it because I am the volunteer mum that organises it all. I laughed about the hated gym master – who wasn’t a teacher at all!