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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In the days after running a race…

hellrunner2008-smallWell, it’s now five days since Hellrunner, and despite aching like I haven’t ached since my last marathon, I thought it would be a good idea to go out and do a few miles today, just to try and loosen up a little.

Conventional wisdom has it that after a big race, you need a couple or three days off before resuming light training, but I have to say that I always need a little bit more than that. After most marathons, I’ll tend to take about 10 days off  – and even after the 11 miles of mud that was Hellrunner, I needed at least 5 days off, as I’ve been aching in places I didn’t know I had, since going Mano a Muddo last Sunday.

In the spirit of honesty, I have to admit to running with a slight cold last weekend, and I now fully understand why you’re always advised to defer or pull out if you’ve been ill in any way.

The race itself, while still being my favourite event by a country mile (which, coincidentally, is what I’m sure they measure Hellrunner in) was tough from about 200 metres out, and I just couldn’t dredge up the kind of pace I’ve been routinely achieving while running through the splendid dunes between Southport and Ainsdale.

Worse than that, while I enjoyed every minute of Sunday’s race, if I’m honest, I felt even heavier than usual throughout, and have struggled to get back to my usual sunny disposition all week – having obviously overdone it while in the clutches of one of my astoundingly rare colds.

I’ve deliberately kept the shot of me crossing the line fairly small – as I don’t believe that my legs should be inflicted on the general populace without some sort of health warning attached. Though even at such a miniscule size and beneath the thick layer of mud that is attached to my usually ruggedly handsome vizog, I think it’s possible to detect the face of a guy who should perhaps not have run that day.

It’s the eternal problem for runners though, I guess. Having spent months training towards just one favourite event, it’s pretty tough to make the decision to pull out just because you’ve had a bit of a sniffle for a few days beforehand.

But that, if I’m honest, is exactly what I should have done – as 6 days after the run, I’m still feeling a few degrees below par. It’s not big. It’s not clever. But hey, it’s still a hell of a race, and I’ll be back again next year – snot willing, obviously.