This is a post I wrote exactly a year ago which popped up in my memories today. I thought you might appreciate it.
I am from London. I do runs that start in places like Trafalgar Square and take you across smooth, wide roads with not so much as a pothole in your way. If I am feeling a bit reckless, I might go for a bit of “trail running” somewhere like Richmond Park, where you occasionally tread in a puddle, or spend two minutes running uphill. That’s as wild as it gets.
Therefore the Great Yorkshire Pieathlon was a bit of a rude awakening. I mean, I knew it wasn’t going to be a road race, but had imagined it being along footpaths and bridleways, maybe the odd field, with a few bogs and hills to dodge. Well, forget all that. Have you ever been to Huddersfield? It’s just like a giant bunch of hills with a few northerners rattling around in between them, living in houses where the front door takes you directly from the street to the living room. Not much is flat, and if it’s flat, it is a bog, with a horse in it. It’s strange in the north.
We convened bright and early on Sunday morning at Salendine Nook school, a bleak, cold building on the top of a hill which looked as if it belonged in a ghost town and had been untouched since the great Huddersfield Holocaust of 1972. We were amongst the few people not wearing fancy dress. Amongst the outfits there was a man with a five foot Christmas tree strapped to his head (who had to limbo dance under the start line), a sumo wrestler, a turkey and of course the obligatory banana. There was also a small dog that looked like Kipsy which was later to snatch Dawn’s pie from her hand.
The race started off fairly easily – a jog across some reasonably even grass then a gentle climb for nearly 2km up a slightly wonky but still manageable unmade road. At the end of the road there was a steep drop to Pie Stop One.
“This is a doddle!” I thought to myself, tucking into a delicious pork pie and observing the Christmas Tree man exhibiting serious Tree Flop. I waited for Stella to catch up but she seemed more keen on chatting to the locals than getting anywhere fast, so I started running again. Dawn, of course, was long gone – off in a cloud of dust before we’d even left the school, not to be seen again until I reached the finish.
The next station was a fairly steep, uneven downhill scented with Eau De Cowpat. It was still runnable, but not at any great pace. This was followed by a very long, steep stretch up a golf course, which was probably my favourite part of the race. I ran most of it and there was an amazing view at the top. Dublin’s infamous Heartbreak Hill had nothing on this! I waved down to Stella and this was the last time I saw her. At this stage I was still thinking it was a bit of a breeze and looking forward to my next pie. I had no fucking idea what was to come.
Over a stile at the peak of the hill, and I heard a man’s voice with a northern twang: “Ey up, it’s another world oop ere!”
Indeed it was. There was no path, just a trail of yellow markers which seemed to have been arbitrarily placed by the Pieorganisers to get everyone going the same way – neither the quickest nor the easiest way, might I add. Running was forgotten, a lot of slipping, sliding and cursing occurred. At some points I simply could not stay on my feet and resorted to clambering along on all fours. I blame my upbringing for this; if you have a dog instead of siblings, you learn to tackle life’s obstacles like a dog. I started to share some words of encouragement (I think that’s what you’d call it) with the nearby group, who were from the “Sowerby Bridge Snails” running club.
“I’m from the South!” I lamented to no one in particular. “We don’t have all this stuff in the South! I run on ROADS! In PARKS! ON A MOTHERFUCKING TRACK! I’m not cut out for this kind of stuff. I’M A CELEBRITY, GET ME OUT OF HERE!”
But Ant and Dec didn’t appear and I figured that if I dropped out I would probably just be left in the hills to rot so had to finish whatever happened. I just hoped the dreaded Bog of Doom would not claim me.
Having exhausted the possibilities for Up, we had to come down, and we did this by way of the slippery cobbled slide to hell that is Gravy Lane. So steep that you couldn’t take it slowly, but too uneven to run. I resorted to holding on to the flint wall that lined one side of it.
“Oh look,” I mused, “a cute little pony! Ouch!”
“The cute little pony” had taken a nip at my hand, but since holding on to the wall was the only thing stopping me tumbling all the way down Gravy Lane like Humpty Dumpty, I had no choice but to let the bastard thing nibble my fingers. I continued my shuffle to the bottom of Gravy Lane and the climax of the race, the Bog of Doom.
We knew the Bog was coming for a long time before we actually saw it because we heard the screams of the victims who were getting stuck in it and the maniacal whoops of the race organisers, one of whom was dressed as a Pieman and kept whacking a rolling pie with his hand in a menacing manner. (I assume he was one of the organisers. He might just have been a random psychopath. How would anyone ever tell?)
“Just go for it, run through as fast as you can, don’t look back!” said someone. So I did.. and I flew through the Bog just like Usain Bolt doing the Olympic 100 metres… and … come on, right leg, don’t get stuck… HEAVE HO… OH MY GOD WHERE IS MY SHOE?
I turned round but the mud was already starting to swallow my precious Hoka One One. I have very little proprioception at the best of times and had no idea where my right foot had actually been when it suffered its catastrophic loss, so all I could do was dig with my bare hands and hope for the best. Of course Pieman and his cronies thought this was absolutely hilarious.
“Don’t just bloody stand there laughing!” I bellowed, which of course made them laugh more. “HELP!”
“Leave the shoe! You don’t need the shoe!” said Pieman, which didn’t help at all.
“I AM FROM THE SOUTH I CANNOT RUN WITHOUT SHOES!” I hollered. “WHERE IS MY SHOE?”
Suddenly there was a glint of blue and gold and I had my shoe. Except of course by now my other was stuck fast in the mud nearly up to my knees and the rescued shoe was so full of mud that I couldn’t get it back on my foot anyway, so I ran the rest of the bog with one shoe on and the other in my hand. When I reached relatively dry land I did my best to scoop the mud out with my fingers and finally it was back on my foot. It didn’t feel great.
Dawn, Stella and me in the Bog of Doom. Sowerby Bridge Snails in the foreground of my photo.
And then suddenly there were pies. I had totally forgotten about the pies. I helped myself to a delicious steak and kidney item and ran off. The last section was back on the road – steep hills again, but lovely concrete. Unfortunately my ankles were shot to pieces from the cross country section and every stone felt like a bolder. The Snails Running Club seemed to have dropped off at the pie stop (eating all the pies, I guess) so I was totally on my own for the last kilometre, which seemed to go on forever (my Garmin clocked 6.7km for what was supposed to be a 6km run) Every time I thought I was nearly back at the school, there was a steward saying “Nearly there! Just up this GARGANTUAN MOUNTAIN that makes Everest look small and then you’re there!”
I made it back to Salendine Nook in one hour and thirty two minutes (not sure if this includes autopause whilst pie munching or not) and found a bored looking Dawn, who’d whizzed around in under an hour, posting pictures to Facebook and musing about whether Stella and I had drowned in the bog.
Many people have asked me if this is going to be the start of my love affair with trail running and I’m afraid the answer is no. I totally enjoyed the Pieathlon – the views, the challenge, the pies! – but I’m happiest when running along a smooth path with no obstacles and no need to think. I’m glad I did it but it’s too much of a performance to become a regular thing. I don’t want to have to worry about losing a Hoka, being savaged by ponies or choking to death on a pork pie, I just like to run free with the wind in my hair and my clean, dry, feet on the ground.