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Attending an inaugural running event can be a dangerous thing, the route may not be fully tested, the organisation might not be quite as slick as when the event has been running a while and the atmosphere may be dampened by the attracting of fewer runners than a more established event…

Thankfully we then have the Hockley Trail Challenge which was blighted by none of the above, in fact I think it’s fair to say that this looped course deserves nothing but high praise and return visits! But let me rewind to 10 days before the race and recount another sorry tale from my personal pantheon of running tales.

I was recounting the story of the week before the Green Man Ultra in 2016 and how I’d been pushed into the road on New Bond Street and been hit by a car mere days before the Bristolian 45 miles. I joked that I hoped that didn’t happen again, it seemed however, that fate is a cruel mistress and as I was bounding along New Bond Street a plethora of tourists refused to get out of my way and I was forced into the road, pulling a muscle in my calf as I landed awkwardly.

Boom! Lightning can strike twice.

I hobbled home and almost immediately cancelled my 49 mile Milton Keynes to London run and sat for hours with the TENS machine and the bastard rumble roller I own – there was Hockley Woods to get ready for! I decided rest was the order of the week and reduced my running to the bare minimum did nothing over the weekend and managed to see my physiotherapist the day before the event (never ideal). Anyway patched up and rested I rolled up to Hockley Woods in good spirits and a desire to have an amble round a new location.

By the time I arrived at 8.30 a few runners had congregated round the registration but many were hiding in their cars avoiding a pre-race soaking. Number collection was swift and smooth and I ran into Cherie and her husband who I met at the Ridgeway last year and we exchanged banter about our various abilities to do directions!

I soon returned to the family who had decided to join me so that the hound and the GingaNinja could get a few miles round the woods in before departing for a morning of trampolining pre-race UltraBaby and I bounded round on the Unirider chasing ThunderPad and the GingaNinja. However runners were soon called over for a short but useful race briefing and we all lined up for six hours of trail shenanigans!

I took up my customary position at the back of the course but as the start was called I quickly made my way forward through the other eventers, quickly catching the front four or five runners and settling into a very pleasant stride.

As I often do on looped events I look for markers and note conditions underfoot so as to try and see where problems, challenges or faster sections will occur later in the race and this one the course was replete with challenging conditions, grinding up hills, gnarly trail and the odd speedy downhill.

I quickly realised that the use of the word challenge in the title was very appropriate.
Regardless I pressed onwards, enjoying the spray of mud that had erupted all over my legs and I thundered through the first lap in under 30 minutes despite the reasonably heavy rain. The second lap went in an even faster time despite a stop to speak to UltraBaby who had been chasing round the woods after runners and our Spaniel, when lap three dropped at a similar pace my thoughts turned to a sub 4 hour marathon time for the first time in ages and a little over 4 hours for the eight laps I had targeted.

I took a few minutes at the checkpoint to gather myself for another lap and then set out again, still making good time and looking at a little over 2hrs for the first four laps.

I was about halfway round lap 4 when I came across a horse riding teen, I’ll assume parent and dogs. Having been kicked by a horse in the past I know instinctively to give them a wide berth and I’d noted that the Collie looked nervous and I felt best I give it some space too. Sadly the dog decided to run between my legs and, in my efforts to avoid giving it a thoroughly good kicking, upended me – forcing me down badly and heavily on my groin.
I managed to hobble away, there was no word from the owner, an acknowledgement or even apology might have been nice but still. I knew I’d pulled something quite painfully and so felt around to see what was tense but it was just sore. I pressed in some thumbs and then moved on gingerly.

At this point I hoped I could run it off but all running was doing was aggravating it. I stopped periodically to stretch my leg out which would give a minute or two of relief but the Hockley Trail Challenge as a race, for me, was over.

I moved into the fifth lap looking grim faced and eventually telephoned the GingaNinja asking for advice, however, having already decided that I wasn’t going to give up I pushed on despite her wise words. I found myself now being overtaken and in some cases lapped which simply irritated me but there was nothing for it I had made my decision and you don’t DNF the marathon distance when you’re so close to home.

Thankfully I was still managing to run some sections of each loop which kept both my sanity intact and my timings reasonable given the pain I was in and I was fortunate to meet some lovely people as I ambled along (most notably Joe, a lovely, hardcore ultra running chap from Tipperary!) who provided excellent distractions.

Reaching the eighth lap I stopped at the checkpoint for a few minutes and ate some chocolate raisins, looking longingly at the medals, thinking ‘I should have had one of those hours ago’. But with these thoughts put out of mind I pushed on for one last go round Hockley Woods. With the rain long behind us, the sun out and the knowledge that I was less than 6km from finishing I continued to run/walk these last few steps.

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As a very pleasant surprise though my little daughter UltraBaby was waiting for me a couple of hundred feet from the finish line (thanks to the lovely volunteers for the picture). She jumped out to ‘scare’ me as she is prone to do and then joined me for those final metres. We bimbled towards the finish as UltraBaby told me we were racing and we crossed the line to much applause from the amazing volunteers. Sadly for me UltraBaby stole the medal, little sodding monster – thankfully only one of us ended up coated in mud and it wasn’t her!

Key points

  • Distance: 5.5(ish)km loops
  • Profile: Undulating
  • Date: March 2017
  • Location: Hockley Woods, Essex
  • Cost: £30
  • Terrain: Muddy trail
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route
The route was much harder than I had imagined, hillier than I was expecting and conditions on the ground and the lapped nature of the course meant it got cut up pretty quickly. That being said once the rain stopped and the runners thinned out the course quickly returned to being more runnable for the most part. In truth despite the hills and mud this was a good running course with more than enough interest to sustain you for as many laps as you can manage. Hockley Woods looks like a really good training ground and if you’re local I’d recommend banging a few miles out.

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Organisation
The organisation was brilliant, the route was well marked, there were photographers and floating volunteers on the route and the checkpoint was well manned, well stocked and well protected for any gear that we had left behind. The volunteers were always on hand to provide the wrist bands to count our laps and there was always a lot of love and cheers as you rocked up to the checkpoint.

Awards
Medal and goody bag. The medal was big, heavy and has a fun feeling to it, the goody bag had Maltesers in (and other stuff) and that’s more than good enough for me. The real award though was the event and I think this was the general feeling from the runners I spoke to during the day.

Value for money
£30 seems like a very fair amount for a race this well organised.

I saw a Facebook post that suggested that £30 was too much but actually look at what you’re getting. A glorious loop on a glorious course with a big bespoke medal, an incredibly well stocked aid station/checkpoint and a really good atmosphere all supported by a wonderful team of volunteers who never stopped smiling. I’ll put it like this, I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less (I’m thinking East London half marathon and even the Royal Parks Half Marathon).

Conclusion
The Ranscombe Challenge (read the review here) has always held a special place in my heart as my favourite ‘laps’ marathon/ultra but the Hockley Trail Challenge has replaced it. I know that my experience was marred by getting injured but that doesn’t detract from the brilliance of this event. I would highly recommend running it’s a great experience and I know that I for one will at some point be back to add an ultra amount of laps to marathon amount of laps!

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I’ve been rather over stuffing the blog with race reports recently so this one will just be a highlights and that’s because it was a race that deserves highlighting

  • 3.14 mile loop (1-10 loops)
  • Almost entirely trail
  • One bloody big sandy hill to climb
  • Beautifully set around the green spaces of a very foggy Guildford
  • Immaculately organised
  • Great volunteers
  • Quality festive aid station
  • Nice and low key
  • Cost effective (a mere £16, you could put the price up a few quid)
  • Trophies for various distance winners
  • Nice play on the term ‘Mince Pie for the race name ‘ I mean who doesn’t love Pi (3.14)
  • Friendly atmosphere
  • I managed to get round despite exhaustion and a difficult time in Liverpool the day before
  • I got to meet the awesome Roy – Susie and Shaun’s awesome bulldog
  • Lots of lovely chatter
  • Great free Wacky Races buff
  • Great medal

Conclusion: Wacky Races are putting on a really nice event here and it’s well worth considering for the next offering. It’s just festive enough, it’s such a cheap race that even one lap would feel like good value and importantly it makes a great year ending race. You really can’t go wrong with this one and if the other events offered by WR are even half as good (most notably The Omen 66.6 miles) then you’ll be in for a treat. Recommended.


ZooooZoooooZoo! This is the noise, the noise of a lightsaber, that I hear when I think of my favourite movie.

Yes, I aware it’s a cliche but Star Wars for me was a defining film, I saw myself as a Luke Skywalker, the kid with nothing except a bit of talent and a lot of rage. However, I’m sure you’ll be glad to read that I’m not going to review a 40 year old movie – no I’m going to be looking at a documentary I saw just a week ago and I’ve been  processing ever since.

Not since I last watched Flash Gordon have I seen a piece of film so full of classy quotes …. I think most people would be better off with more pain in their lives, honestly.I think that, if nothing else, they would appreciate the pain-free times more.

Anyway The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young (to give the film its full title) perhaps needs a little explaining to those who might simply stumble across this blog. 

The Barkley is a race, a running race (of sorts), an ultra marathon in deepest Tennessee, an ultra marathon of approximately (or exactly, depending on who you ask) 100 miles, in five loops and it’s 30 year history has had only 17 finishes.

Sounds hideous? Not your cup of tea? Let me explain why you should give up 90 minutes of your life to this story and discover ‘a new hope’ and why ‘The Barkley Marathons’ has more in common with Star Wars than you might at first glance think.

NB. This will be a spoiler free review

The documentary unfolds across the 2012 event with some history from creator Lazarus Lake. The documentary charts more than the history though, it looks at the infamous entry system, the runners who have involved themselves over the years and of course we are witness to some of the more exotic names of the challenges encountered – the ‘testicle spectacle’ and ‘rat jaw’ amongst them. It’s a race that brings together the most eclectic group of runners you could imagine with names as fitting as could be Wouter, Brett, Jared, John, Ed and you imagine there have a been a few people could Buzz or Lance along the way too.

It’s no secret that the failure or RTC rate is sky high and perhaps this is where it is most at it’s Star Wars like best – it’s a rag tag motley crew of the most dedicated taking on an evil Tennessee empire with Lazarus cast as a slightly more benevolent Death Vadar. The trouble is that there isn’t always a Luke Skywalker who can bullseye the Death Star reactor and complete the five loops.

The documentary is filled with amazingly honest interviews, pained moments and genuine distress but at each turn you are willing on the runners to go that bit further – you want them to succeed.

In many ways you want them to succeed because this is one of those great everyman challenges – like climbing Everest or scaling El Capitain. With the right training, tenacity and hard work these things become achievable but then you get there and you realise that while every man could attempt these brilliant challenges not every man will succeed and the Barkley explains in no uncertain terms that it really is the journey and not the finish that matter. Something I believe in wholeheartedly.  

Perhaps the most memorable thing in the documentary for me was this from one of the runners 

There was this focus when growing up to be conservative when it comes to your future and have some good plan for retirement and then travel and see the world and do all this fun stuff when you retire. I was really good about that but then, uh… Yeah, so kind of like in one year I had a series of a few deaths in the family and then I was in a relationship for 10 years and that ended so it was like all this crap just all happened to me in one calendar year. It was awful. I was in a really bad place. One of the deaths in this case involved was my father, who has done just what he told me and saved all of this money for him and my mom to travel the world and he passed away one year before his retirement. That’s when I realized you’ve gotta live. You’ve gotta live your life.

The documentary is a tour de force of the positivity of the human condition. I would urge you all to watch it and hopefully find something in it.

But what did you find UltraBoy? Ah well that’s easy – I found a new focus, I’d like an attempt at this race and as I approach 40 I realise I’ve been working my way up towards it – taking on harder races, more mountainous races, riskier races, races with a greater chance of failure. I was never going to be content returning to races year in year out that I knew I could do.

So why do I want to do The Barkley? Easy. Because it’s there.

Conclusion This is a brilliantly filmed documentary and feels like a piece of classic ongoing American history. The filmmakers appear to have taken pride in producing a piece about human beings will and determination under the guise of a race. It’s a documentary with heart and you’d do well to watch it whether you’re a runner or not.

The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young directed by Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane is currently available in the UK on Netflix but for a more beautiful experience you can purchase the DVD/Blu-ray here.

  
Sounds like an advert I’d put in a lonely hearts column – looking for a racy lady named April, big ‘hills’ and personality to match? I think I’d probably get some exciting responses. Thankfully it’s not a dating advert but something I was looking for in April and that was a challenging race to help condition me for a manic May. 

What did I find? Well I’ll be doing the Ranscombe Double. The ‘Challenge’ event on the Saturday is a 4.4 mile undulating 8hr timed run while Sunday brings the ‘Ramble’ another 8hr event but a hillier 5.25 mile route. Both will be trail, both will be muddy and by the looks of things both will be like I’m hoping ‘Racy April’ is, moist. 

I’ve run Ranscombe three times with SVN events and it never fails to impress and I’ll be chowing down on as much deliciousness as I can stuff into my cake hole.

The aim is a minimum of a marathon on each day but ideally 30 miles per day would set me up nicely for the Hillsborough to Anfield Run and Skye Ultra Trail in May (both over 70 miles). But after feeling pain in my right leg post last weekends hilly 14 mile buggy run I’ll take whatever distance I can manage and not push too hard for fear of further damage. 

So good luck chaps for anyone else running this weekend and have fun.

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Despite feeling a bit better on the Sunday (after my piss poor performance at the National 100km) I decided that I needed to get straight back on the horse.

My original 2014 plan had been to run ultras in order of distance, rising gently throughout the year C2C and SPW both 45miles, SDW was 50miles and then the National should have been the first of two 100km runs before I returned to the 100 mile distance. Things obviously became a little skewed by the WNWA96 because this sat right in the middle of two of the other races and basically left me without sufficient recovery time. But what I did learn was that I probably need to commit to trying to run 100 miles in 24hrs because mentally I felt bereft after the National and confidence was shot to pieces.

With all this in mind and my usual bullish charm I signed up for the Challenge Hub 24hr Challenge in a just 10 days time. The great thing about these North East Kent events is that they aren’t races, they are events designed to test the human capacity to endure. I am aiming to endure about 100 miles, I need to prove to myself, that pretty much unsupported, I can make the 100 mile (and more) distance inside the one day because I want that Centurion one day finisher buckle – actually this year I want two of them. So Challenge Hub here I come, to test myself and my ability on your loop. Feedback from @abradypus about their Moonlight Challenge was so good that I’m really looking forward to this.

Deflated after the National? Not me … now where’s my saddle?

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