“I haven’t seen any tape in a while. Have you?”
That was the first time we went wrong. Not the finest moment of my running career. Wrapped up chatting about stories of ultra running we’d plain missed the arrow indicating a left turn a mile, or so, back. We backtracked apologising profusely to the few runners who foolishly thought we knew where we were going.
The day had started at the ungodly time of 6am. The fog was as thick as pea soup as we drove the 50 minutes to the Trailscape Marathon in Newport, Essex. Excited by the launch of the AR adidas Trail Team we had shoehorned a brand new EZ-UP gazebo, banner flags, t-shirts, beer and two of the team in the 1 series BMW. It wouldn’t be a comfortable journey but it would be over quickly.
The race began as smoothly as we had expected. This is only the second year of the Trailscape Rail to Trail series but John and Hannah run the operation like a well-oiled machine. At 8:30 we set off. Two laps and 27 miles of muddy trails to navigate. Brilliant.
A small group of runners sped off up the first slight incline. The AR adidas Trail Team well represented and our new adidas solar yellow team shirts cut through the mist like glow sticks at a rave. Fairly quickly, the racing whippet, Steve Skinner and I were clear of the group. We chatted casually enjoying the crisp air and the simple joy of escaping London for the day and running in the countryside. Our path turned right over a freshly plowed field; a blanket of chocolate corduroy that seemed to stretch on for miles.
And then we went wrong. Muppets.
We retraced our steps, noticing the clearly marked arrow that we had blatantly missed. Fellow runners joked with us about our lack of observation skills. “Should have gone to Specsavers, lads!” some cad joked.
A short effort later we were back at the front of the field and moving well. The trail was a mix of muddy fields, hard packed lanes and the occasional ploughed field – the latter sticking to shoes and turning them into boots of energy sapping mud. The rain over the preceding days had also pooled into some giant puddles. Impassable by any other means than wadding we used them as a great excuse to wash off our mud-caked footwear that was making life so much harder.
Before long we were nearing the halfway point. The course had been rolling rather than steep and we knew it was downhill to the finish. But before that there was a sting in the tail. A short but brutal uphill muddy climb. Heartbreak Hill. The Whippet and I looked at each other, laughed, and began the hike – hands on thighs pushing off on each step to keep the back straight and the glutes engaged. Could we have run it? Probably, but the energy expended wouldn’t have been worth the time gained. After all we were well clear of the rest of the field. In the grand scale of things a few seconds wouldn’t matter.
We came through the final checkpoint, 100 metres, or so, away from the finish but far enough away that it we couldn’t see it. We smiled and chatted with the marshals. The sun was beginning to appear through the fog and the world seemed like a good place. 1hr 38 minutes for the first lap despite the wrong turn. Not bad and well inside the previous year’s winning time. We turned our attention to the steady climb from the aid station.
The second lap was pretty much the same as the first. The muddy fields had become compacted from the footfall of those behind us and for the most part the going was a little easier. The Whippet stuck with me. We swapped running in front a few times but preferring to lead rather than follow, I set the pace.
We passed the sign where we had gone wrong the first time. The Whippet went straight on. “Left mate, let’s not go that way again!” I joked. We turned left across the field, not a soul in sight. The sun, now low in the sky, casting long shadows across the autumn landscape.
The miles ticked away nicely. Despite having run a 17-hour hundred miler only two weeks before my legs felt strong and the effort was steady rather than hard. I could sense that the Whippet was having a harder time of things. His breathing was a little laboured and as we reached a point around 7km from the gap between us gradually grew.
I felt a little bad. We had run so far together. Should I have waited and finished with him? But the decision had already been made. With the Whippet no longer in sight I focused on the remaining miles.
The hike up heartbreak hill was soon dealt with and I eased off the gas as I cruised into the finish feeling pretty fresh and in good shape. I looked around for other runners but the finish was empty save a few spectators and John holding the timing device. Not only had I finished first in the marathon but I’d finished ahead of the half and 10km runners who had started after us. Who’d have thought it? John joked that they weren’t ready for me and could I come back in a few minutes. I politely declined. I was done for the day. 3:20 and first place. Time for a beer.
Over the following hour I had the pleasure of seeing 16 of the AR adidas Trail Team and many of the AR Collective come across the line. All with a huge cheer and smiles on their faces. We launched the Trail Team with the sole purpose of bringing spirit and camaraderie to the trails. It’s not about podiums or PBs, it’s about the simple joy of running; the pleasure of being outside on the trails; seeking adventure and escaping the day-to-day.
While we hadn’t intentionally sought the limelight we’d actually done pretty well in the performance stakes. My partner in running crime and life, Claudi, had won the women’s marathon in a record time. The Bearded Runner, AVO, had destroyed the field in the 10km with Fabio and Frida getting 3rd and 2nd in the men’s and women’s half marathons respectively. And what of the Whippet? Well he finished strong to take second place a mere 10 minutes behind.
A number of thanks are due. Firstly to John, Hannah and all the volunteers at Trailscape, thank you for putting on an amazing race and looking after us so well. To adidas and Stance socks. Thank you for believing in our dream and supporting us. We looked fly in our team kit on Saturday. To the AR adidas Trail Team for running in our colours and being the ambassadors for our dreams. Finally, to the AR Collective and to everyone out there running and inspiring others. You guys rock.
See you at Trailscape Round 2 in Cuxton, Kent.
For the #StravaWankers out there, here’s my Strava run