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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Shoe Review: Salomon Exit Aeros

Salomon Exit AerosWith Hellrunner looming over the horizon , my thoughts once again turned to footwear that could withstand the somewhat unique challenges of this rocky/muddy/steep/sandy/wet 11 mile course.

Last time out, I wore my best North Face Gore-Tex Hedgehogs, which, frankly was a mistake; as the last thing you want to wear when wading through a chest-high peat bog is Gore-Tex. I might as well have filled a couple of plastic bags with sludge, stepped in and gaffa-taped them around my ankles…

So imagine my delight when a pair of Salomon Exit Aero rocked up at Jelly Baby Towers this week, just in time for me to start my bad weather training sessions.

Billed by Salomon footwear as ‘multi-sport shoes’, I have to say that they look more like lightweight hikers than bona fide trail running shoes. Or to put it another way, they’re a little more Mars Bar than Aero. However, with so much mud and gravel on my mind, the least I could do was strap them on and take them out for a slow but sludgy 11 miles through the dunes and along the beach.

First Impressions on the Feet

Salomon Exit SoleThese are pretty sturdy shoes, without quite as much in the way of flexibility as I’d like. But on the upside, the ‘Contagrip’ soles are soft and massively grippy, and there’s a fair bit of cushioning all around the uppers and in the heel area too. Not to mention plenty of breathability.

They’re missing gaiters on the tongues, which I usually insist on for trail shoes, but in all fairness, with Hellrunner in mind, I’m looking for shoes that can let mud out more than keep it out. So that’s alright then.

While these things are also fairly wide, the laces allow for plenty of adjustment, meaning that I was pretty comfortable by the time I took a last bite of my Marathon (calling them Snickers is a modern fad I refuse to have any truck with) and set out for 11 miles of road, gravel, sand and sludge.

Hitting the road

While these things are pretty comfortable for walking in, they really don’t offer the kind of cushioning you need to run in them on Caramac, sorry, tarmac. So by the time I’d done a couple of miles of pavement  on the way to the dunes, my knees were really feeling it and my hamstrings were tightening up.

It was with some relief then that I finally hit the trail proper, which mixes soft sand with Crunchie gravel for the next 3 miles or so. And I have to say, these things make great trail shoes for this kind of mixed terrain, as they offer a good balance of grip, protection and underfoot support that was a real Bounty at this stage.

The sole pattern also delivered fabulous grip, which almost made up for the slight lack of flexibility and gave me quite a Boost.

Yet the Salomons also impressed when I got to the beach and the blessed relief of the turnaround. Running on sand, the lack of underfoot cushioning really didn’t matter and they were supremely comfortable over every surface, coping well with the serious sludge too.

The Self-important Summing Up Bit

I’m a big fan of Salomon trainers, with my only complaint being that they don’t always last as long as I’d like them to. However, the Exit Aeros boast a very sturdy construction that leads me to believe I’ll be wearing these things for some time.

What I won’t be doing is wearing them over a paved area again. Ever. As there really isn’t anything underfoot to absorb the pounding that you need when you’re built like a Double Decker.

Having said that, I’ve been looking for a shoe that will be able to live with the unique demands of the Hellrunner series, and I think that in the Salomon Exit Aeros, I may have found them. So despite the fact that my hamstrings are still complaining about the lack of underfoot cushioning, I have to say that these 4 jelly baby ratingare solid well-built shoes that make great hikers and decent heavy duty trail shoes for when you know there is only going to be gravel or soft stuff underfoot.

So while I don’t exactly love these things, they’re fit for purpose, so I’d have to be a real Flake not to give them a respectable Four Jelly Baby rating.