Regular readers will know that I go out running quite a lot these days. Years ago I ran in quite a few fell races. I was always more of a fell staggerer than a fell runner: my least impressive result (of which I am oddly proud) was coming 462nd out of 462 in the Langdale Skyline race.
Since I got going again I've been taking things a lot more seriously: not because I expect to do substantially better but because I'm now substantially older. I've put a lot of effort into interval training (alternating fast bursts with slow jogs) and fartlek (a Swedish word meaning "speed play") running, as well as going out for longer and longer runs.
Well, I reached the point this week when I decided it was time to have a go at a race. I searched the net and discovered that a fell race was being held in Hamsterley Forest: a 10k course involving 1,100 feet of ascent. Quite moderate as fell races go.
Karen came for the ride and to offer moral support. We arrived early so that we could drive round the signposted 'forest drive'. It was a cloudy, showery day, but quite warm. We'd brought a flask of coffee with us but whenever we stopped to enjoy the view a cloud of flies surrounded the car, making it impossible to open the windows. The only fly-free place to stop was the Visitor Centre car park.
Anyway, scenic drive over, I made my way to registration. It was soon clear that not many people were planning on taking part in this race. I was a little worried about this, as I half expected to make a fool of myself, and if I did, it would be better to do so in an impersonal crowd. As it was, only about twelve of us turned up.
The race was a handicap, which meant that when you registered you told the organiser your time for 10k. Since I had not run a race for years, I had to give him my "best guess". The worst runner (me, in this case) was to start first, the best, last. The clock was to start with the first runner. Theoretically, everyone would finish together: anyone who managed to do just that bit better than they normally did would have a good chance of winning.
Unfortunately, 2 minutes after the start I got lost! I mistook a red cycle route waymark for the orange walk waymark I was supposed to follow for the first mile or two. By the time I realised and had made my way back to the course I had lost about 12 minutes. The next 5 3/4 miles became a desperate attempt not to come in ages after everybody else.
Desperate, but fantastic, nevertheless. The route featured exhilarating "demon descents" down steep, muddy, tree-root infested paths that wound in and out of the trees. There were also the inevitable ascents, which also concentrated the mind wonderfully. After winding through the hills of the forest for a few miles, the route emerged on the open fell above it. At this point I realised that I (along with everybody else) had aquired my own personal cloud of flies that buzzed round and round my head, taking it in turns to land there.
After a while the route plunged back into the undergrowth of the forest, suddenly emerging on a hardcore Land Rover track. This zig-zagged down the hillside to the main road through the forest: the end was in sight. It was just a case of going flat out until I got there.
Much to my relief, I wasn't last. There were three competitors behind me and I when I saw the times I realised that had I not got lost I might well have won! This being a handicap, this had nothing whatever to do with any prowess on my part. I had simply underestimated my own ability slightly when signing up for the race. It was good to do a bit better than I expected but I was pleased I'd got lost: I would have felt something of a fraud had I come in first.