With efforts of late to increase my weekly mileage, ‘Wifey’ has tended to fall asleep after me… And it transpires that over the last week I’ve been physically shaking, shuffling and even bounding in my sleep.
The explanation? Frostbite!
More accurately, the last Frostbite race of the 2015/16 series and with days to go, pictures of the weather show the host location – Hinchingbrooke County Park – is literally underwater.
The same night I see the pictures of these harsh conditions ‘Wifey’ is subject to ever more violent shaking, bounding and ‘sleep running’ whilst I sleep with a psychotic smile across my face…
Fast forward to the morning of the race and as our car cuts through the early morning fog toward Huntingdon, I quietly go through my race plans; deciding – regardless of my race position – I should try and push hard on the hill and mud section within the last mile of the course. The fact that I don’t know the course, nor it’s length is a minor and irrelevant detail…
9:30am; and after dropping off ‘Wifey’ and ‘Daughter’ at the Hinchingbrooke School gates – the location of Race HQ – I go on the hunt for a parking space, only just returning to the starting line in time for 10:15am, ready to watch the ‘Daughter’ – alongside 201 other children – dash into Hinchingbrooke County Park Wood.
Some 7 minutes later the first of the juniors re-emerge onto the finishing stretch, albeit wetter and muddier than they were to begin with. A Daz Doorstep Challenge would suit these scenes.
Leading up to the adult race; after a warm up recce followed by me barraging questions toward anyone with prior knowledge of the course, trail shoes are the obvious conclusion. This is despite a 2 mile road section.
As 350 senior place themselves at the starting line a voice in my head reminds me that, this being the last race of the 2015/16 series, it’s also the last chance for me to hit a personal (albeit closely guarded secret) goal… I want a top 5 position.
No pressure before the concluding race of my first ever season…Waiting for the go-ahead, runners anxiously stare toward the sharp left turning some 50 metres ahead and on the Race Director’s cue, we dash to round it before the masses.
After safely navigating around the first bend, we decend toward a narrow(ish) gate, flanked either side by cheering spectators leading us into the muddy County Park Wood.
The pace feels a little too comfortable as we slip and splash our way through the shade of the wood and a group of Nene Valley vests contribute to the human barrier which has formed at the front of a 10 man pack of runners. A brief but palatable pause in the race occurs as a group of 5 runners who are keen to ramp up the pace silently look at one another, waiting to see who makes the first move to break away.
My brain, not yet numbed by fatigue, thinks back to my first race as a ‘club runner’, where my one and only thought was “oh my god I don’t want to die infront of all these people”. Now, a mere 11 months later and I’m playing Cross Country chess at the business end of the pack.
This thought lasts less time than unguarded food in our house as the tiny frame of Mr Halford bursts through the white vested wall and onto a braver pace. Without a second thought I follow, elbows tucked tightly. A handful of some five or six runners chase Mr Halford and I who – side by side – quickly establish a ‘comfortably horrid’ rhythm as we slowly pierce the uphill trail through the woods.
Within 400 metres we have broken into open air, running with a tree line to our left and the back of houses to our right. The ground here is soft and heavy and as we approach a tree which sits in our way it’s clear that the most direct route is to stick to the left; but the gap between it and the tree line is only wide enough for two runners.
As I pass through the gap, I feel a sharp knock against my left ankle and watch as a Mr Brownlee acrobatically splats into the soft ground. I look back and spot a pair of blazing eyes, already back upright and burning a hole in my soul.
My pace quickens immediately.
Through my fear of Mr Brownlee and Mr Halfords bravery a breakaway of 3 – with Mr Taylor sticking to our tail – forms, and as the wood trail turns to road at mile 2 we hit a climb and start to open up a gap from the remainder of the field.
It’s at this point that my stomach wrenches with nerves, being fearful of how this next 2 mile section of road will feel wearing my ‘Mud Claw’ trail shoes. This is quickly forgotten as I concentrate on sticking to Mr Halford’s side.
As the road flattens, our pace naturally increases and I can hear the wind rushing around my ears. This feels quick; and upon review after the race, I find we have dipped below my best 5k pace. The last couple of months training, including track sessions, have paid off.
After mile 3, there is a sharp right turn onto grass. I’ve forced myself not to look behind but after another 100 metres we circle around a cone to turn back on ourselves. I haven’t noticed the cone though and clumsily run straight into Mr Halford. I’m just able to get the words of “sorry” out. I risk gaining a reputation for race violence…!
As we head back over the same route we’ve just come from I’m shocked to see that we’ve a good 10 seconds on 4th place.
For the next mile we run head on into the field of 350 runners and I’m humbled to hear so many shout their encouragement at me; with not one put off by me; foaming at the mouth and sporting an emotionless ‘race stare’.
Reaching the end of mile 4 I can feel the bite of our pace and as we pass through a narrow gateway and back on to loose trail, cannot even hear my own breathing.
A Marshall stands beside a huge puddle and shouts a warning of its depth which I ignore, storming straight through it in an attempt to splash her and my two adversaries. She’s no dummy and effortlessly backs out of the way. Curses.
Another half mile of loose trail is quickly defeated and the three of us, almost always side by side, head toward what I know to be the last mile. There are no marshals to be seen and suddenly Mr Taylor takes a hard right into the wood, shouting for us to follow. I can hear the uncertainty in Mr Halfords mind, however we quickly spot familiar ground as the loose trail turns into an uphill, narrow and muddy track.
A very small voice in my head reminds me that, with less than a mile, now is the time to be decisive. I take a deep breath then surge infront and push hard up the hill; opening up a good gap placing myself in first place!
2 minutes later the ground has hardened, transforming into a downhill dash in the open air where Mr Brownlee was so brutally tripped earlier.
Downhill running is my Achilles heel and Mr Taylor quickly make up lost ground, lurking just behind me with less than half a mile to go.
My lungs and legs are not happy and I’m audibly gasping in preparation for the final 250 metres of uphill grass (not forgetting the final sharp bend just 50 metres before the finish).
We hit this final climb at a quick pace and things become slightly blurry as I dig deep, taking the final bend still in the lead and speeding up for a dash to the finish line.
Mr Taylor bounces off my right shoulder as he makes a break for it and with 30 metres to go we are still neck and neck…
…But not for long as Mr Taylor turns on the afterburners, surging infront. I’ve no more gears left, losing first place by a little over a second.
I crumble over the line, falling to my hands and knees… Mr Taylor too, is doubled up in exhaustion and I hear the voice of a little girl – who must be helping with marshalling – asking us if we are ok. Mr Taylor can only whisper “no”, causing a few chuckles around us. The girl politely asks us to move forward to make way for other runners coming in.
I decide crawling is the best option, slowly making my way to the end of the “finishing funnel”.
I get to my feet, noting Mr Halford has come in less than 20 seconds after me. I go and shake his hand; secretly bemused how I could have opened up such a gap; having done sessions with him recently, I know how stupendously strong he is.
Another minute passes before 4th place – Mr Brownlee – finishes; showing just how much Mr Halford’s early efforts, and my/Mr Taylor’s strong finish has punished the rest of the field.
Top 5 position; done (albeit there are one or two notable absences in the race’s lineup).
Looking back, my average pace today has been 5 seconds a mile quicker than my fastest ever 5 mile race previously. Yet today’s race was 0.5 miles longer and somewhat muddier, hillier and more technical. It’s a great personal end to the Frostbite League, showing that the last two months of training have paid dividends.
I can’t wait for the next Frostbite Series and am still replaying the day at 1am the next morning, despite running a second time that afternoon (a first for me). I surrender to my unwelcome consciousness, deciding to creep downstairs to cook something substantial. As I quietly rise to my feet, I notice a pain on my ankle. Mr Brownlee certainly left his mark…