Trail Blazing

As an antidote to property acquisition (do not even go there – I have crashed, I am burnt and I will need the scabs to heal over before I can face blogging about it again), I am coaxed out of my pity party to run my first trail half marathon.

Coming off tarmac for the first time is the result of a perfect storm:

  • I am a sucker for signing up to races before looking at a route map
  • I signed up for this particular event pre-Covid; it was cancelled during the Pandemic, and then cancelled again last November because the risk assessment failed to cover tree felling . This year the event managed to creep up on me with impromptu stealth.
  • When I originally signed up, I clearly stopped reading the T’s & C’s after ‘half marathon’ and failed to note the incline(s); I just thought it would be a nice day out.
  • Two good friends (GFs) agreed to run this race with me; I trust their judgement and like their company – two good reasons to run.
  • One of these GFs has been encouraging me to get my half marathon total up to a count of 60 before I reach the same number in years …the Cardiff Trail Half Marathon promised to be my 60th half marathon and you will need no reminding that the ‘fifty-something’ by-line on this blog is fast reaching its sell-by-date i.e time is running out if I am to make good on this particular gauntlet.

My boot camp buddies are all veterans of the trail – they scoff at my love of concrete and laugh in my general direction whenever I mention a road race. While I have been crafting shin splints on perfectly manicured B roads and managing to keep my trainers clean, they have been running off-piste ultras, often at night and often accompanied by a rucksack, tent and head torch for good measure. They have not exactly sold the concept to me; if you look at their injury count, most of them seem broken by hill running – but credit is due for their continued addiction. I can judge them for their prejudice against tarmac miles, but I can hardly accuse them of being fair weather runners.

Last Sunday, in a running context I was down to one GF on account of the other one being injured walking up a steep incline on a Geography field trip. As this GF is not a seasoned trail runner, perhaps I should have noted this warning. Hills are clearly dangerous and perhaps not for the novice. I lend him my massage gun and he sends off for a compression sock. He promises to be back with us soon.

Thankfully my other GF is a seasoned trail runner and, out of interest, it is this GF who encouraged me to count up my half marathon medals . I also note that she too is running the same 60 by 60 challenge but, being so much younger than me, her challenge is a mere walk in the park compared to mine.

This GF also ran my first London Marathon with me, and, back in the day we ran many road half marathons together (I was always in her wake). I only overtook her on the half marathon challenge tally when she discovered trail running and subsequently threw in the towel on our road race schedule to embrace Jurassic coastline and muddy tor with some robust trail shoes and an intrepid hound (the dog is her’s, she didn’t steal him). Some of these events were so hilly and so muddy that they needed to be shorter than half marathons if participants were ever to make it home in daylight – thus note that this is the only reason that GF’s half marathon tally is less than mine.

If you remember, last Sunday was gloriously sunny and, as my GF agrees to be my driver, my only concern en route is whether I have remembered my sun glasses and whether it is too early to eat my porridge. It is only during this journey that GF comments on some of the killer inclines she has noted on the route map. She doesn’t notice that I have gone a little quiet because she is trying to work out how to eat her own porridge in transit without being spoon-fed by her co-pilot.

We arrive at the venue far too early (my fault) and we are guided into a parking place conveniently close to the portaloo queue. It has turned very cold and as the race starts on the top of a mountain, we seem to be perched in the middle of a cloud. From the warmth of the car we watch the runners queue to make a call of nature. I notice that these veterans have a mountain goat appearance – they appear wiry and honed and there is a glut of impressive trail shoe attire and compression sock. There is not a fun runner in sight. I note quite a few Dryrobes – something I have never seen in a City half marathon. I feel underdressed and less than reassured to note that GF is donning an impressive water camel back pack, strapping up her knees with sports tape and knocking back salt tablets. I wonder if today is not the day to complete my 60th half marathon after all. I suggest I just spectate but GF is having none of it.

Having read your comments after my last post-marathon blog, I realise that you are unlikely to stomach a mile by mile account of my first trail run experience; I will offer instead my reflections on this inaugural rural event in the hope that you too may be coaxed off concrete/your sofa:

  • This was such a friendly run that the organisers even refused to start the race until the queue for the portaloos had completely disappeared i.e. for once the conveniences were not made into an inconvenience and for that my very weak bladder and fear of lateness are very grateful.
  • The pre-race briefing was also so friendly that only at this point was it gently dropped into the mix that we would be climbing the height of The Shard if we were to complete the course. I have never visited the Shard so the relevance of this information only hit me half way around the course.
  • The sun came out a mile into the run – actually the sun was always out, we just didn’t notice until we dipped down out of the cloud and then the temperature remained ideal for a novice like me without a Dryrobe. I was already in danger of enjoying myself.
  • It is true that everyone walks up the hills in a trail race. This never happens on concrete – there is always some show-off checking their Garmin and either overtaking or tutting disapprovingly. I always thought my fellow bootcampers were super human and that they were lying when they told me about the walking. Incidentally, I also thought they were just wearing very muddy trail shoes to boot camp but now I realise that they too have feet of clay.
  • If you do manage to run down the hills (my inner fell runner is not very good at this), some of the tracks are so narrow that you cannot overtake here either (I would not have risked this, but it is nice to know). You run at the speed of the slowest runner and this takes away any angst about obtaining a PB.
  • All the runners are so flipping friendly. I had some of the best chats on this run.
  • It is the first time that I have participated in a two-minute running silence on Remembrance Day – a group of x service men called out time at the start and at the end of the remembrance period as we run up the most stunning trail and I cannot think of a more beautiful way to honour those who have served their country.
  • I also cannot imagine more beautiful running than that experienced last week. I am not sure if I would feel the same if the heavens had opened, but for my inaugural trail I will always remember the colour of the trees and the most stunning Welsh vistas. The views were so stunning that I can honestly say that this is the first time I am have ever stopped to take photos during a half marathon – sadly for you, you are now subjected to the fruit of this exercise (at least my GF will make this easier on your eye).
  • The marshalls, as well as being friendly and encouraging, also gave out flapjack to wash down the water at the pit stops. Carbtastic heaven.
  • You get to look up at the view when you reach a mountain top and you need to look down at your feet on the way back down to prevent prat falling; both are brilliant antidotes for calming an anxious mind at the end of a fretful week – there is no capacity for your brain to be distracted by anything else.
  • At the end of the run, everyone waits for everyone else to finish – it doesn’t matter how long they take – other runners just sit in the sun cheering them in and eating bananas. (Caveat – I am not sure if this would be the case if it had been raining, though with the abundance of Dryrobes, I am confident that seasoned trail runners are as well-prepared for all weathers as as they are for all terrains).

So, sitting in a field with GF at the end of the race, we bask both in the sun and in the glory of completing another half marathon. GF slaps me heartily on the back for reaching my target of 60 races (I decide it would be churlish to mention that this action risks ruining by achievement by covering me in my scalding cup of coffee -thanks race organisers for the club house cafe btw.

On the drive back home I tell GF that I am totally converted to trail running. I tell her that I may retire from concrete for I have had the best day. It is the friendliness of the run, the company and the superb views that have made the day so special as much as realising that I have now completed 60 half marathons.

As we cross back over the Severn, I glance down at my Garmin and realise that my tracker is clocking 12.8 miles rather than 13.1. No wonder I felt so spritely ‘sprinting’ to the finish line. I feel a fraud. I tentatively mention my mileage to my driver who tells me to keep quiet – it turns out she has already realised from her own device that our mileage seems a little truncated but she has not wanted to rain on my parade. I check the website and no-one seems to be complaining about being short-changed on the distance. No-one has called for a stewards’ inquiry. We check our medals and they both definitely read ‘Cardiff Trail Half Marathon’ so it must be fact. They must measuring country miles and, if they are shorter than concrete miles, I love them even more.

GF has already been in touch regarding a forthcoming trail half marathon in Swansea. ‘It’s not as if you will be moving into a new home any time soon,’ she says, ‘it makes sense to keep you distracted. It will help those wounds heal. Buying property is a marathon not a sprint. I’ll chuck in a Dryrobe if you agree to enter’.

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