Race Review: Hellrunner: Hell in the Middle

hellrunner, hell in the middleAs a three-time loser at Puma’s Hell Up North event, I’ve been all agog for months waiting to find out what the all-new Hell in the Middle event was going to be like. Billed in advance by the organisers as the ‘hilliest, hardest and helliest’ of the three Hellrunner races, it certainly had plenty to live up to.

Well, surprise number one arrived as I entered the Cannock Chase area. I’d been told it was ‘quite nice’ by a few people, but nothing prepared me for what a little slice of heaven it is, particularly as it’s so close to Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and the hideous Rugeley Power Station.

Frankly, I think that the Brummies have staged the biggest cover-up since the Hutton Inquiry, in order to keep this absolute gem of a place all to themselves. It’s mile after mile of fragrant pines interspersed with babbling streams and gorgeous heathland, and I was absolutely captivated by it. But perhaps I should drag myself away from the scenery and get to the race…

Pre-race organisation

After the slightly less than wonderful parking arrangements for Hell Up North, the organisers really got it right here. Tons and tons of well-marshalled, free parking, just a ten-minute stroll from the start. Though maybe next time, some zone markers wouldn’t go amiss: as while parking up was easy, finding one’s anonymous silver Golf after the race in a pine forest now littered with nearly a thousand cars wasn’t quite as simple.

That small quibble aside, there were plenty of Stewards, well-organised baggage drop-off, and plenty of pre-race chat from the guy on the P.A. (though his assertion that “The average Hellrunner is a 27 year-old male – which is as it should be” may not exactly have put him in the running to be Andy Gray’s replacement at Sky).

The race itself

As usual for Hellrunner, there was plenty of pre-race drama, with smoke flares, the appearance of Satan himself, and a smoke-billowing quad bike to get us all away from the mud-strewn starting bowl.

And that was when surprise number two arrived: because after just a few hundred metres, we were sent up one of the nastiest inclines I’ve ever been on (and I’ve done most of the Lakeland Trails series), followed by a succession of steep drops and vicious hills. Nope, they really weren’t joking about the ‘hilliest and helliest’ part.

In fact, by about 4 miles in, very few people were managing to run to the top of every hill, and most people accepted that this was going to be a pretty tough day out.

Bog of Doom Number One soon arrived, which was littered with the usual hidden boulders and tree-stumps, causing many people to get out the side and run around, which the single young marshall didn’t have a whole lot of luck stopping.

After that, apart from the many hellish hills, there were some absolutely superb stretches through the dense pine forests, including a long run along a babbling stream that was sheer delight for my old, tired feet.

The final Bog of Doom finally delivered the waist-deep mud we’d all been expecting, and the last few hundred metres took in a superbly-designed series of scrambles up sandy banks before the blessed relief of the finish, after 11 truly hellish miles.

Overall verdict

Paul Magner and his team should be feeling pretty pleased with themselves this morning. The organisation was spot-on, the course was absolutely hellish, and even the t-shirt was better than usual.

Does it live up to the ‘hilliest, hardest and helliest’ billing? Absolutely. Though it fell short of the neck-deep mud we’ve come to expect from Hell Up North.

If you’re fit enough to deal with hill after hill, then the atmosphere and scenery make this one of the best races you’ll ever find. Though, if I’m honest, being 20 years older than the ‘average Hellrunner’ I may have to stick with just Hell Up North after this…

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Gear review: Nike+ GPS app

Nike+ app home screenFrankly, any runner who doesn’t use some form of GPS tracking is just kidding themselves about the distance they’re covering.

I should know: after many years of running 6 miles most nights, my first encounter with a Garmin GPS for runners showed me that I’d actually been running 5.6 miles, and was therefore neither as fit nor as fast as I’d previously thought.

And so, I adopted first a Garmin, then RunKeeper for the iPhone, which has the added advantage of giving you in-ear updates about pace, time and distance.

The only problem with RunKeeper though, as most long-term users will tell you, is that with every new update comes a new glitch; resulting in either the loss of all your valued data, or the lady who speaks in your ear … talking … very … very … slowly. Or even not at all.

Then, a few months ago, along came Nike with an update on their charming but hopelessly innacurate Nike+ pedometer unit.

Naturally, as no friend of faceless big business and corporate American ethics, I decided to stick with the little guy, and give RunKeeper another chance. Just before it dumped all my data again…

So, what choice did I have but to give the Nike+ GPS App a whirl? And wow, am I glad I did.

OK, so the website it comes with is pretty hopeless, concentrating on flash graphics rather than hard analytical data. But the actual App works perfectly, and even allows you to get audio updates every half mile if you so wish.

The interface is simple and clear: and most importantly, appears absolutely reliable, having performed perfectly every time I’ve used it.

Frankly, there are only two things I’d change about the Nike+ App:

1. The inane Americanisms offered by the post-run voiceover: “Hey, you can just run all week baby” being amongst the worst.

2. Unlike RunKeeper, Nike+ doesn’t offer you a 15 second countdown to the start of your run, meaning that once you’ve pressed ‘Start’, you either have to try and shove it into your armband on the go, or add a few seconds to your overall time.

But those small and, let’s face it, fairly petty quibbles aside, this seems to be the App that runners have been waiting for.