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What’s in a Word…
Brutal – that’s quite a word; isn’t it! And it’s a word that I’ve often (probably quite glibly) used to describe a certain ride or run. But, yesterday, it took on new meaning for me. I think that I can now honestly say that I have a better appreciation of the meaning and gravity of those two simple syllables!
If you have read some of my other blogs then you will know that, in addition to being passionate about my cycling, I am also addicted to running. In fact, through winter, I probably run more that I cycle these days. For me, running is almost a spiritual experience – one of the few times when I can fully experience deep solitude (a feeling that I love) even if I am surrounded by other people. I also adore the simplicity of the sport – provided you have a strong pair of legs, a sound constitution and the right trainers, you can simply slip your shoes on and be out of the door in a matter of minutes.
I Ride - and I Run…(Oh - and I swim a bit!!!)
Having started as a recreational runner, I am now no stranger to competitive events and although I’ll seldom challenge for the lead against more experienced club athletes, I simply love the competitive nature of these events – and the real grass-roots nature of the sport at club level. And, as club-level events go, I am privileged to have one of the UK’s finest right on my doorstep – the Benfleet 15. This race – now in its 24th year – is a 15 mile mixed terrain run, taking in the Hadleigh Country Park (home of the Olympic MTB track) and various sections of sea wall around Leigh on Sea, Benfleet and Canvey Island.
I first ran The Benfleet 15 in 2013 and from the moment I crossed the finish line, I was hooked; I vowed there and then that this would be a regular part of my racing season. Consequently, as soon as entries opened for the 2014 event – I made sure that my name was on the list. And, from the moment the confirmation email hit my inbox, the training began. If I’m honest, I actually think I like the training as much as the race itself. It gives my daily run focus and, in the weeks before the race, becomes a great reason to trade my Saturday ride for a distance run. In fact, during training for this year’s race, I actually hit a new personal distance record on one of those Saturday runs.
Although getting the training in is vital for any race, it’s particularly relevant for Benfleet. Conventional wisdom is that this race is very tough. Unlike the many local 10Ks and Half Marathons, you don’t get ‘fun runners’ at Benfleet. And the reason for that is that it’s not a course that lends itself to casual runners. Generally, the start line is awash with club shirts – all worn by seasoned runners who have the miles in the legs and a full understand of what lays before them; 15 arduous miles of mud, hills and pain.
Even though I had run this race before, I’d never really seen the course at it’s finest. The 2013 event stood out for having been run in a blizzard. Frozen rutted trails were hard on the feet – but the fresh snow and firm ground made for relatively good going. In 2014, however, the course had been inundated with month upon month of almost constant rainfall. By the weekend of the race, the trails were like swamps and the grassy sections like paddy fields; the Benfleet 15 at it’s very best.
‘Perfect’ Running Conditions…
The course has changed since 2013, too – with the organisers having secured access to part of the Mountain Bike track. Little did we know, before the off, that this would result in one of the hardest race finishes anyone could imagine. But standing at the line before the start that seemed an eternity away. And, crossing the line and beginning the turn into the first downhill section, all I could focus on was keeping myself upright – feet struggling for grip on slick, wet grass and digging in unexpectedly to ankle-deep mud.
That first downhill was so intense that I was actually glad as the trail rose upward again. But that feeling soon wore off as an almost endless steep muddy, grassy, slippery hill dragged onward – pulling the heart rate with it. In fact, the crest of that hill is probably one of the few times that I have ever seen maximum heart rate recorded on my Garmin watch.
Turning back out on to the lower trails of the Hadleigh Downs, a short, gravelly section gave a brief few hundred yards of respite – before the mud began again. And when I say mud – I don’t mean the sort that messes up the soles on your new trainers – I mean the sort that comes half way up your shin and tries to drag the shoes off of your feet. Pushing on through this was beyond tough – seasoned club runners around me all expressing their amazement at just how bad the conditions were. Every now and then, deep puddles presented themselves – and when they did, I ran right through them; simply to clear the clay from my trainers and lower legs.
With Hadleigh Castle looming into view, I knew we were approaching Heart Rate Hill – a short but vicious climb. Many walked this and those, who ran, did so at a greatly reduced pace. I ran this myself until just short of the top – where the masses in front of me had all slowed for the turn. Making our way around the foot of the castle, the steep grassy bank – now churned into a slick muddy mess by several hundred pairs of trail shoes – presented its own challenge. Simply staying upright on this section was a task in
itself – as proven by the guy who overtook me at pace and then flew almost to the bottom of the hill again as his feet simply disappeared from under him. The trail levelled out – but the mud went on….and on……and on!!!
Approaching Leigh on Sea Stations the trail gave way to metaled road; treating us all to a mile of firm, reassuring hardtop. Logically, you’d think that you could make ground up here – but trail shoes don’t bind well to asphalt so sense prevailed and I held the pace back (a fall here would be much worse than a dive into the mud). But, the road section is soon done and once again we turned out onto the trail as we followed the sea wall between Leigh on Sea and Benfleet creek.
In some ways, the going here was much better – the surface being largely comprised of a mixture of gravel and rocks. But those sharp little stones punch hard through thin
trail shoe soles – and I honestly didn’t know which I preferred – the hard going in the mud or the punishment over the rocks.
From Benfleet creek the course follows a four mile section around the sea wall at Canvey Island – those on their outward-lap run along the top of the sea wall; whilst those on their return run along the bottom. The landscape here is flat but featureless – so although the easy going is welcomed, in some ways, this feels like the longest section of the race. But, turning onto the lower sea wall path, I knew that I was really headed for home. Turning back off of Canvey Island, the 12 mile marker pulled me onward – magically dragging every last ounce of strength into my legs.
I recall another runner saying to me during my first Benfleet 15 that he loved seeing the 12 mile marker – because, “Anyone can run 3 miles!” There’s truth in that statement but also some naivety. With you at sea level and the start / finish line now a good few hundred feet above you the only way, as the song says, is up!! The ascent began immediately – Station Road in Benfleet. This short, punchy climb must be in excess of 15%. If you were beginning to tire before you climbed it – it really could finish you off. I jogged it – 12:00 Min/Mi pace – and even declined the free chocolates on offer at the top.
Turning back into the Hadleigh Country park, the climb went on….and on…and on!!! By now we were back in the mud – thick, clinging, foul smelling and energy draining. Negotiating another turn, a marshal said, “A short downhill coming up and firm surface”. It was music to my ears!! By now, I knew that I was running on reserve. For some reason, I’d not taken any of the energy gels that I’d carried with me and was probably paying the price. Throughout the race, my heart rate had been firmly established high in zone 3 and well into zone 4. Working at this intensity, I’d been burning mostly Glycogen and, as we all know, that’s not really sustainable.
Following a tight winding gravelly path, the ongoing ascent was by now, taking me to a very bad place. Every fibre in my body now burning with the relentless effort and spirits finally beginning to flag. By this point, I was sure that the organisers could not possibly have anything worse to throw at us. But those Benfleet Running Club folks are clearly a resourceful bunch – as proven by a near vertical climb up a short muddy bank that had to be taken on all fours; desperately grabbing at tree roots, tufts of grass and even thorns for purchase. A guy climbing next to me summed it up nicely, “I thought I’d entered a run; not an assault course!”
An End to the Suffering….
The 14 mile marker came and went; I ticked the final mile off – yard-by-yard on my Garmin watch until finally just one last challenge stood between me and the finish. Just when the end was in sight – and before my suffering could end – a steep muddy ascent tore every last ounce of energy from me and practically tore the muscles from my legs. I wanted to walk it – I needed to walk it – but the crowd atop the hill screamed encouragement. I saw friends shouting my name and wanted to shout back – but all I could manage was a pained salute with my now empty drink bottle. For one last time (in this race) the heart rate screamed into the red zone and I pushed with everything I had – I wasn’t walking; but I wouldn’t really call it running either. Cresting the hill the finish line sang a sirens song to me – pulling me onward as I mustered a half decent run to the line.
Crossing the line, the marshals greeted me with a sincere, “Well done mate”, and after jotting my finish time down on their clipboard were soon focussing their gaze toward the hill to welcome the next ‘survivor’. What a rush those few moments after the finish were – body flooded with endorphins – the sound of the crowd still baying for the suffering souls ascending the final climb – the immense feeling of pride and satisfaction and all this juxtaposed with an odd sadness that it has all ended for another year.
Shortly after the finish, I hooked up with my brother-in-law, Paul, who had also run. Unlike me, he hadn’t trained specifically for this race but had taken advantage of the offer of place when my mate had been forced out through injury. He ran strongly – crossing the line a few minutes ahead of me and was by now buzzing with that same post-race rush. Briefly, we exchanged our initial thoughts on the suffering of the last two and a half hours and then slowly made our way to Race HQ to collect our trophy running shirts. For me, it was great to have Paul there. So often, I compete in events like this and then have no one to share the experience with – but Paul had run and suffered the same. Like me, he had a full appreciation of just how challenging, but rewarding, the race had been.
Brutal; Absolutely Brutal…
Sunday afternoon saw the expected flurry of Facebook, Twitter and Strava banter. And it was during these exchanges that I noticed several people using that word, “Brutal”. Had I not been there, this may have just sounded like the usual post-race bravado we all use. But this was different. Reading those messages, my mind filled with images of that gnarly climb taken on all fours – mud covered hands clutching frantically at anything more solid than the surface; thorn-spiked fingers thankfully
numbed by the pain now tearing at the rest of my body. For a moment, I was right back there – leaden legs dragging me painfully toward the top of that final climb as shouts of encouragement from friends in the crowd almost churned into a melee of white noise in my mind. Against that backdrop, brutal seemed a fair description.
The following day my legs reminded me that yesterday I ran the Benfleet 15 as simple tasks like sitting down – or walking down the stairs suddenly required careful planning and mental preparation. But the lingering pain of race day is a worthy pain; the sort of pain that reminds you that you’ve done something epic or, dare I say, brutal. It’s the sort of pain that says, “yesterday, I ran the Benfleet 15 – I earned my shirt and I relish the pain”. Equally it’s the sort of pain that makes you appreciate the real meaning of the word ‘brutal’.
On a final note, I would just like to say a sincere thank you to Benfleet Running club. Every year – for the last 24 years – they have worked to make this race the highly regarded event that it is. From entry to finish line, it runs like clockwork and I – like many others – would not miss it for the world. But at the core of the whole experience – and on every turn – stand the marshals; a fantastic group of people who sacrifice their Sunday to see us all around; genuinely encouraging every competitor – from the first to the last. On behalf of every Benfleet 15 runner, may I say a sincere thank you.
Brutal; that’s quite a word, isn’t it! On the Hadleigh Downs, I finally gained an appreciation of what it means.