aka What goes up, must come down
After the Kingston Marathon in October, it seemed like far too long to wait for my next race, the North Downs Way 50 in May 2016. My criteria for the interim race were as follows:
- something I hadn’t done before
- something involving hills, preferably involving the North Downs Way
- something challenging
Events To Live’s Three Molehills met every one of these and after reading a few very positive race reports, I signed up. The race is based at Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking and also hosts the Bacchus marathon which offers wine as well as water on the way round. All manner of different kinds of PBs are set at that race, I am reliably informed. As well as being a 14-mile solo race, it also has a relay option with each leg starting at finishing at Denbies, and with various out and back spurs, giving you the opportunity to wave at your friends and generally be quite sociable.
I’d also managed to persuade a few fellow Fulham Running Club members along too - or possibly they were going anyway - but either way, I agreed to meet the Millers (Barney and Jacob) at Clapham Junction early on Sunday morning to get the train down to Dorking. Having run late before thanks to the vagaries of Sunday trains, I got to Clapham in plenty of time, which in turn would get us to Dorking nice and early. And then I failed to find the right platform and had to wait over half an hour for a train. Apparently you can’t even teach an old dog old tricks.
After a mile warm-up (i.e. slightly panicked run from the station to registration), I bumped into a few familiar faces (Gemma, Killer, Barney and Jacob), met a few new people and just had time to drop my bag off before lining up at the start. It was a bit breezy but unseasonably warm for the end of November and I was looking forward to the race. The man with the loudspeaker spoke loudly, if incomprehensibly, and we were off.
Molehill 1: The Box Hill Steps
Out of Denbies we went and back along the road I’d run in on, it wasn’t long before the race leaders were under the subway and heading back along the other side of the road towards the Stepping Stones. When the river’s low, you can cross the Wey using these but when they’re under water the bridge is the way to go. You’ve just about completed a mile and you’re into the woods and then the 270 Box Hill steps appear.
If I absolutely had to, I could probably run all the way up but a) it would have knackered me out for the following mile at least b) it’s really hard to get into a rhythm and c) everyone else was hiking and there’s no room to pass. A few people started running and soon gave up. It’s simply not worth killing yourself with most of the race to come. Besides, when I reach this point in NDW50 I definitely won’t be running, given that it comes at mile 24, and the second half is harder than the first.
A quick loop around the viewing point - look at Denbies all, er, covered in cloud - and then back across the top of the hill and down Burford Spur as fast as possible without falling over or trashing the quads. Smallish steps, hands out to balance, down onto the road and back to Denbies.
Molehill 2: Norbury Park
After a swift cup of water at the start/finish, it was back up the same road only this time we headed up past Boxhill & Westhumble station. For the first time in the race I was entering unknown territory. I knew there was a hill and that it was partly on roads but beyond that I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Up a hill we went. Up up up. Nothing terribly steep but on and on it went. Relentlessly up. More up. And then some more. Eventually, I decided that a short walk break would benefit me more than slogging away. Sixty seconds later I was off and running again and overtook everyone who had passed me on my break. I’ve no evidence but I bet I felt better than them too.
Finally we hit the summit and then it was down down down on rocky leafy paths. Hardly technical but uneven enough to make you keep your wits about you. With gravity on my side I was reminded why I love off-road running so much. Letting yourself go down hills faster than is probably safe and picking your way between good places to land your feet made me feel like a kid again and it was brilliant.
Someone behind me apparently didn’t quite find the right place to land and fell in a heap with a shout. I turned and stopped to see if he was okay and needed help. He said it was his ankle (I know that feeling) but that he didn’t need help, so I started running again. Not long after I saw a Red Cross van heading in his direction so I wonder if it was for him. I hope he was okay.
The route wasn’t heading back to Denbies and suddenly I realised we would have to go uphill again before we went down again. Barney, who I’d briefly caught up with after he went left instead of right, disappeared off into the distance and I did my best to keep pushing the pace. A twinge in my calf was making itself known and while it wasn’t too uncomfortable and this was my last race of the year, I didn’t want to push so hard as to injure myself. It’s amazing how prominently a previous injury can play on your mind like that. So I didn’t push too hard on the downhill back into Boxhill & Westhumble. I also wanted to save a bit for the final leg.
As I approached Denbies again, someone in a Barnes Runners vest struck up conversation. Jenni had done the race last year and was looking strong. I’m never sure in races where you get chatting what the etiquette is regarding racing. Is it okay to be all friendly and then sprint off in the last 50 yards? Or should you announce your intentions at some point? We still had more than 4 miles to go so I didn’t need to worry just yet but it was on my mind as we came through the start/finish.
Molehill 3: Ranmore Common
For the final leg we went straight through the estate with the smell of fermentation heavy in the air. It wasn’t really all that appealing after 10 hilly miles but it soon disappeared as the steady incline we were climbing twisted and turned up a hill I’d been up on a previous North Downs Way run. The incline became unreasonable and I resorted to walking for a minute as did Jenni and another guy who’d joined us. His main aim was to get home in time for the start of the West Ham game. It’s always good to have a race goal, no matter how misguided.
Whether it was the gel kicking in or high-fiving high-flying Clapham Chaser Martin as he came down the hill I don’t know, but suddenly I found a bit of energy and rhythm and pulled away from the others. My faster pace was all relative but I was overtaking others going up the hill and realised it couldn’t be too far to the final turnaround.
After one final muddy slog through an extended grass verge, it was back down the way we’d come, waving to people I knew and smiling at people I didn’t simply because I was having such a good time. My legs were in bits and I wasn’t hugely looking forward to the steep downhill ending but it would at least mean less effort for a change.
With just over half a mile to go I was overtaken by a guy who paused just long enough to tell me he thought sub-2 hours was on. I wasn’t convinced but did my best to keep up with him as my quads screamed their displeasure. I didn’t manage it but neither was I overtaken in the final stretch, despite the best efforts of Jenni and West Ham who finished just seconds behind me.
Distance: 14.2 miles
Average pace: 8:33/mi
Slowest mile: 12:45 (mile 2)
Fastest mile: 6:58 (mile 14)
The winner finished in 1:28:05. I came 66th out of 185 finishers, 13th in my age category (MV40) and 4th out of 4 Fulham runners. Well done to Nick, Jacob and Barney, pictured with me below.
Finally, a big thanks to Events to Live, who organise the race, and to their volunteers who stood outside in the cold, wind and rain for several hours to enable us runners to have fun. (Weirdly, I didn’t notice it was raining until I saw one volunteers looking a bit bedraggled. I think this shows how much easier it is running than helping out!)
This is a challenging ultra-half but great fun and well worth entering. As well as a medal, there was a bottle of beer and chocolate bar for solo finishers, with wine for teams. Not bad for £21!