The Christmas Cow Fest (a convention of Cow Cowl clad tourists) took place this weekend at the relatively new Wendover Woods parkrun in Buckinghamshire. As I was at work on Friday, I could only take part in the parkrun section of the festivities and not the drinks the night before, which by the look of the pictures on Facebook resulting in a few tipsy tourists and Cow Cowl Cow finding herself being used as a Christmas tree fairy in the Tring Travelodge.
Wendover Woods, to put it mildly, is an utter bastard of a parkrun. If you don’t like hills, or mud, breaking your ankle, recording a personal worst or having no mobile phone signal, don’t go there. If, however, you are one of those weird people who happily splash through the Thames Path and do trail running ON PURPOSE then it is probably right up your street. It actually has a Strava segment called “The Big Bastard” and I think that says it all. Honestly, it makes Hadleigh look a breeze. The elevation is about the same but the surfaces are so much harder to run on, and the steepest section is exactly halfway through the run, so you are neither fresh out the blocks or ready to give it your all with the finish line in sight.
My run was made even more interesting by the fact that I had offered to run with my friends’ ten year old daughter, Catherine. Now, if you’d taken me to a parkrun when I was ten I would probably have thought I was being punished for doing something terrible and cried and demanded to sit in the car with a book. Catherine is not the same sort of ten year old as I was. She is the fastest runner in her year at school and actively enjoys it. Unfortunately, ten year olds are not allowed to run parkrun on their own and although her PB is under 30 minutes, that is not quite fast enough to keep up with her father (Steve) and her mother (Rosie) was busy looking after her younger siblings, so I offered to let her run with me. (I am quite relieved the younger siblings didn’t run. I can handle being outclassed by a ten year old but a five year old is pushing it.) Rob, who is still not allowed to run after having shoulder surgery after falling off his bike, joined us. So that was my competition for the day: a ten year old and a one-armed walker. And of course they were both faster than me.
The course started in a mud bath at the top of the hill. I nearly fell over three times just getting to the start line. Since I had company, I had left my headphones behind, so this was my first ever music-free parkrun. All I could hear at the start was squelching and people complaining. As we turned the corner, the terrain got drier but was replaced with horrific ankle turning stones. I said a few bad words, although obviously they were not quite as rude as usual because I was in charge of a minor. “Yuk” “drat” and “ugh” probably featured.
Thankfully by the time we got to the downhill the path was a bit better. As is customary, I dropped like a lead weight down the hill, overtaking several people who would be much faster than me on the flat and temporarily overtaking Rob (but not Catherine, who happily skipped along through the leaves without breaking a sweat). Strava says I was actually running faster than 6 min per kilometre pace for this bit!
At halfway we ran out of Down and had to go back Up again. This Up was half a kilometre which was about as steep as Finsbury Park’s Hill but much more muddy and uneven. Rob cracked some joke that I didn’t appreciate about reaching the snow line while Catherine impatiently ran on ahead and didn’t understand what was keeping me. Rob speeded up to keep up with her and I spent the next two kilometres failing to catch up with them. This is the last time I parkrun without my headphones! You hear all these stupid people on Facebook going on about how they love running without music because they can hear birds singing and feel at one with nature but all I could hear were my feet squelching and my own panting as I struggled up the never ending hill.
The terrain seemed to get worse and worse towards the end until I was convinced I was going to sink into the quicksand and need rescuing. There was a man taking photos 500 metres from the finish and he shouted “500 metres, and it’s all flat from here”. A hundred metres later I nearly turned round to go back and punch him because it was only flat in the sense that if you compared it with Mount Everest, Everest would be marginally steeper.
After an ungainly squidge through my least favourite terrain of all, wet grass, my ordeal was finally over. I was quite amazed to see that I had come in at 39:47, thus possibly being the only person ever to record a better time at Wendover Woods than Victoria Dock. Clearly trying to keep up with an athletic ten year old is the way to great parkrun times. I might ask if I can borrow her every week.