Somehow I managed to get myself talked into doing a Category A Fell race in Epping Forest. Category A Fell Races are as dangerous as Category A prisoners and Category A drugs. They must have at least 50m of climb per km (this one had more) and no more than 20% of the course on road (this one had less – precisely none, in fact). The race was organised by a local running club (which I will not name for reasons that I will explain later). I had a feeling that I was going to be last before I even arrived at the club house and this was cemented when I saw the other people taking part – that breed of lithe, poised, nimble runner with their long, slim, toned and well-balanced bodies, like a herd of mountain goats. I felt like a stray hippopotamus amongst the flock.
The race was preceded by a 1.5km “warm up jog” across a deep ravine and a golf course and then down Pole Hill. Everyone else jogged at a faster pace than I can run at. I threw a tantrum and insisted on walking. “I don’t want to be exhausted before I’ve even started”. Rob distracted me from my moan by telling me that they couldn’t start the run from the clubhouse because the terrain wasn’t offensive enough to be for the all important Category A classification.
I lined up at the back and desperately looked for someone, anyone who looked like they might be anywhere near as slow as me. I found no one, but I did spot a couple of familiar faces – Kat, a fellow Vegan Runner, and Zoltan, who used to live in the same block of flats as me and was acting as “sweeper” (the fell race equivalent of “tail walker”).
The race starts on Pole Hill, which is presumably so called because you need ropes and poles to get up the fucking thing. It is not so much a hill but a vertical cliff face. It makes Hadleigh look like Victoria Dock. Of course, it was no match for the mountain goat brigade, who bounded up it like they were on springs, feet flying, not watching where they trod, and within seconds they were all at the top and disappearing round the Obelisk into the woods while I was still halfway up the hill, puffing, panting and turning a delicious shade of aubergine. Still, it didn’t matter, right? I would get round in my own slow way, even if I would be last. Just like at parkrun and RunThrough races. Being last is always a bit soul destroying, but no one cares except you. Right?
At the top of the hill were a few marshals and spectators, and I anticipated them dishing out the usual meaningless encouragement: “great running” “well done” “go Vegan Runner!”. What I actually heard was something altogether different.
“You need to get some meat into your diet. Then you’d get up that hill quicker!”
I turned to see a middle aged man standing with the marshals sniggering at his own joke and at me. No one said anything in reply to him and my brain (and indeed my lungs) failed to provide a witty retort. All I could do was mutter “fuck off” as I turned the corner and desperately tried to follow the course and catch sight of the last person. Now my face was aubergine with embarrassment as well as with exertion. Suddenly I was back to being the chubby eight year old coming last in the school Mini Marathon, with Sam Beck’s mum asking “is that girl disabled?” and the school dinner ladies making the kind but mortifying gesture of putting the finish line back up for me. Tears pricked my eyes and I wanted to just give up and go home but all my things were at the clubhouse and I couldn’t even remember the way back and could hardly run back to the man who had just insulted me and ask him for directions.
As I composed my thoughts, I could not believe what had just happened. I told myself that the man was probably just a random spectator and that no member of the running community would ever speak to a fellow runner like that. I belted down a steep hill and caught up with Kat and Kat’s Friend and told them what happened and for a while we all ran together and discussed vegan sausage rolls and jelly beans and I started to put the incident behind me and make the most of the race. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep up with them for long and once we got to a flatter grassy section, I lost them, but every now and then I would get within spotting distance of them and they would turn back and wave and that saved my sanity a bit.
What can I say about the course? It had every terrain you could think of except tarmac. A track through the grass, mud in the forest, grass, trail, long grass, a big patch of stinging nettles, thorns, a big fallen branch that you had to jump over. Neon yellow arrows and marshals would not have been sufficient for this course, because some of the paths weren’t obviously paths and you would never guess that you had to run down them, so instead they had laid a sawdust “breadcrumb trail”. Every time I thought “oh god I am lost this can’t possibly be the route it is a road to hell and death and oblivion”, there it was, another patch of sawdust there to reassure me. There was one section which was two way traffic and I quite liked this bit because I saw lots of other people and they were all nice and encouraging and managed to say things like “well done” even though they were running uphill at some kind of ridiculous pace.
The terrain got even worse after this, though, and the worst bit was trudging up a grassy hill with no body in sight, following the stupid sawdust, noticing the light starting to fade and wondering if I would make it back by nightfall or spend the rest of my miserable life trudging round Epping Forest. At the top of the hill there was some kind of view of stupid little country houses in the arse end of beyond that would have been quite a sight in different circumstances but all I could think was that I was three miles from home and yet so far out of my comfort zone I might as well be in Timbuktu.
There was a marshal with a bicycle at the top of the hill.
“Many behind you?” he asked.
“Precisely none” I said.
“What about the sweeper?”
“Haven’t seen him. Maybe he got lost?”
“Who got lost? You got lost?”
“No, I didn’t get lost, I’m actually this slow”.
Bicycle Marshal and I walked and conversed a little bit where I learnt about the fascinating history of the Fell Race (“we started it because people said Essex was flat” “it was easier but people complained so we added another hill”) but then I lost him somewhere in the woods. Twilight was starting to creep in and I felt as if I was in a Crimewatch reconstruction: “jogger finds body”. I began to curse Rob for dragging me along to this race; I formed a little thought bubble above my head with his face in it and began mentally sticking pins in it. I hate Rob! I am never going along with his bright ideas again! I tried to think of something awful I could make him do that would be a suitable revenge for this torment but the trouble is that Rob likes doing ridiculous and exhausting things and would probably enjoy whatever I suggested.
Suddenly a troop of Victoria Park Harriers (Rob’s running club) plodded through the woods in their green and purple streaked vests. In my fragile state it seemed like an army of Robs running with their feet in time, military style, coming to get me. I scuttled down the final downhill where at the bottom I was met with the real Rob and Zoltan the sweeper. I spent the next half kilometre telling Rob how much I hated him and that we weren’t friends any more and that he would have to watch ten thousand Leyton Orient games as compensation for my ordeal. Then I remembered the You Need Meat comment and went into a big rant about that until we got back to Pole Hill for a second trip up and I was once again rendered unable to speak.
“If that… puff… man… wheeze… is still… pant… there… I’ll… punch… gasp… him … rasp… in the … croak… face” I muttered.
(I would like to add that I do not actually punch people in the face, ever, even though I frequently express that I might like to. I am a peaceful vegan after all. Also probably as good at fighting as I am at running. I feel like I should feel bad for my loss of decorum , colourful language and empty threats, but on the other hand, I only lose my temper when it is deserved and bloody hell I think this was deserved.)
Anyway, you can probably guess that the man was still there. 50 metres from the finish line. 54 minutes down.
“Well done!” he said.
At this point I wasn’t sure if it was the same man. I gave him a scrutinising glare.
“If you rush, you’d just make it under the hour!”
Was this an encouraging comment or a sarcastic one? Wasn’t he implying that it was going to take me six minutes to run 50 metres?
“I promise I won’t make any more funny comments about your…”
That was it. Red flag to a Beyond Burger. I stopped in my tracks, turned to Mr Meat and desperately tried to find enough air in my lungs for my shouty voice.
“If you do make another funny comment you will get a punch in the face! Do you know how demoralising it is to be struggling in a race like this and have someone say something like that to you? Don’t EVER speak to someone like that again!”
I ran off to the finish line where Bicycle Marshal, Kat and Kat’s Friend and some other marshals were waiting and they gave me a big cheer and I like to think this was more for giving Mr You Need Meat what-for than for my abysmal 54 minute performance.
And here is the best bit. Mr Meat man wasn’t a random spectator after all. And he wasn’t just a member of the running club. He was the race director.
(*I did a google search for “girl up mountain in boxing gloves”)
What can I say about this? It’s the first time I’ve ever been properly heckled with a nasty comment while running. Even when I weighed 95kg, the worst I ever heard was a leery comment about my boobs. Stupid remarks about veganism are annoying at the best of times, but when levelled at a slow runner struggling in a really difficult race as a reason for her slowness, I think it is downright cruel and unfair. For a start, there are so many talented and uber fit vegan runners out there – several of whom were in the same race, but not wearing a Vegan Runners vest. The winner of my age category was in fact, a vegan. Rob is vegan and completed the race in 29 minutes. Kat would have been a lot faster had she not been running alongside her non-vegan friend. And if you look into the wider world of athletics and sports in general, there are loads of vegan champions out there: Scott Jurek, Jermaine Defoe and Venus Williams to name a few.
There are many reasons why I am slow but nearly all of them are down to bad genes and absolutely none of them are down to the fact that I am vegan. In fact, if you’ve been reading my blog you’ll know that my performance has got better and better in the last year since I became vegan, and so has my health. I’ve beaten my 5 and 10k PBs and started getting close to the half marathon pace I had before I broke my leg. This time last year I considered the RunThrough Wimbledon common to be a difficult trail race, this year it felt like nothing.
Speaking of Wimbledon… compare 2018 (left) and 2019. I think there has been some improvement in my physique, though I am not sure you can say the same for the Womble.
Secondly, how much of an arsehole do you have to be to make fun of the last runner? In a way I can almost understand a bit of heckling of the fast runners, who are so busy buzzing with the joy of their nimble performance that they brush off any tired and discriminatory “humour” thrown their way, but why not treat the last person with a bit of kindness? I suspect he’s the kind of person who turns his nose up at slower runners and usually levels these comments at them without any comeback, but he picked on the wrong person when he picked on me, and I hope I’ve given him some food for thought.
I knew the Fell Race would be a new experience, but I didn’t think that it would end up being the first time I went to a race and ended up threatening the race director with a punch in the gob. Hopefully it will be the last.
A final word: the reason I haven’t named the running club or the race is because I’ve spoken to a couple of their members on Facebook today, including the club secretary, and I firmly believe that Mr Meat’s behaviour was not representative of his club in general. They have many vegan members and according to their website they welcome all abilities and have courses for beginners. The club secretary has apologised to me. Mr Meat himself has not, but tellingly he did apologise to Rob, who wasn’t even on the receiving end of the comment. It seems to me that to him a fast, athletic male vegan is worthy of his respect while a snaily female vegan is not.