Thursday, 5 June 2008

Brandon Forest

It doesn't pay well, this running gig.

Monday last week, the bank holiday, I ran the Brandon Forest Half-Marathon, my first race since puffing around London. Brandon Forest is near Elvedon, near Thetford, half-way between Cambridge and Norwich ... ok, it's nowhere really. But it is a very nice forest. No lions and tigers and bears, just vistas and gentle slopes and trees and howling winds and driving rain.

I've been running most days, quite slowly, occasionally fishing Mercury out of the river and picking up his poop. Still nothing that would constitute training. Nonetheless I toed the line of the race feeling quite cheerful, an unfamiliar sensation of late. I like this racing game. When the horn went off I followed the leaders into the woods.

The course is superb. It follows a three-leaf clover shape, and you run it twice. This means that you pass the area around the start six times, so supporters can cheer their runners frequently, more or less every two miles. It's a splendid design, and the marshalls are good too. The race organisation is perfect. I commend it to everyone. As for the course, in the second half you know what to expect, and I rather like that experience, except for the outward stretch of the second leaf. The race is noisy and exciting at the start. And suddenly it gets very quiet. You're in the forest, and the mid-packers have receded into the distance. There are a couple of guys in front, a couple of guys behind, and that's it. And it gets worse. But then it gets better. You return to the start, the drinks table, and the cheering crowd. And then it gets quiet again.

And on the outward leg of that second leaf there is a mile-long stretch into a roaring headwind that almost stops forward progress. It's a little dispiriting. My Garmin considers autopause. But eventually I turn a corner and I'm winding through the trees again, stepping over the rocks and puddles, trying not to turn an ankle on the corners, picking my footing. My legs hurt like hell because it's off-road, and being an urban type I don't much use those muscles required for lateral support. I contemplate the humiliation of not finishing as hurting turns to burning turns to numbness.

There's a nice moment when a tall, slim, attractive, dark-haired woman wearing a light raincoat billowing in the wind cheers me on by name as I pass by the drinks table. I have my name on my shirt, which was evidently a good investment. She does it next time too. The next time I lift my heels a little harder as I approach this central nexus. Then I smile. Then the next time I wave. By the last time I'm a bit less sociable, however.

After six miles there is no other runner in sight, though there is a guy a hundred metres behind me puffing away. It's alarming I can hear him, all things considered (it's the tailwind I suppose). After ten miles the end is nigh, and when I enter that final leaf I know that everything is going to be just fine. It's not quite, as the twenty-year old who has been behind me barrels past just as my ankle goes on a rough patch with 200 metres to go. I can't be bothered to catch him (the difference between a trained runner and a runner between training schedules). Nonetheless I figure it's been a decent outing. 1:25.30, which isn't bad for an unfit runner off-road.

There is a magnificent mound of bananas at the finish. Everyone ahead of me seems to have done it before. They're swapping war stories. "D'ya win?" asks one. "Yeah," says his interlocutor.

I chat to the dark-haired woman. She seems quite nice. Then I head off home.

Imagine my surprise when I look up the results online and find I was second M40. I won ten pounds, which followed by post. That's the first individual prize I've ever won. You know, being 41 isn't so bad at all. Looked at in strictly financial terms, £10 isn't great for an hour and a half's work. But I was just a little bit pleased with myself anyway.


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