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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Hellrunner. Wetter and better than ever before.

This is all that’s left of my favourite New Balance trail shoes and Thorlos socks after yesterday’s Hell Up North leg of the Hellrunner series. The picture hardly does justice to how ruined they are, but suffice it to say that not even bleach has had any effect on the socks, and as the soles of both shoes have also separated, I fear it may be time to get a new pair.

Last year’s event was held in April, and while I got plenty muddy, I was clean again after just one jetwash, two showers and a bath. This year, I’m already up to three showers and two baths, without very much success in getting rid of the ingrained mud from yesterday.

As it’s been raining for weeks in the North of England, I should have predicted how tough yesterday’s race was going to be. But I didn’t, and was consequently astonished throughout at how much tougher the course was than usual.

Obviously, the opening hill is gravelled, and the subsequent downhill path was pretty OK. But after that, woodland paths through Delamere Forest, which had been springy with pine needles in April, were just an endless quagmire that you didn’t so much run across as wade through.

I found myself crawling up the steeper slopes, as even my fabulously grippy but now deceased New Balance 471s couldn’t find any purchase. And each successive bog simply filled my shoes with more peaty mud and twigs, covered my legs with more mud-etched scratches and allowed fellow Hellrunners even more opportunities to step on my achilles tendons as I became ever more bogged down. By the time I finally reached the finish line, in a highly unimpressive 2:06, I felt as exhausted as I usually do at the end of a marathon.

Just to sum up then: I had an absolutely fantastic time yesterday, and can’t wait for next year. Though in fairness, it may take me that long to recover sufficiently to be able to run again. Switching from Salomon sponsorship to Puma obviously hasn’t hurt the Hellrunner franchise, and while some of the web forums have been critical of the organisation, I thought that yesterday’s race was much better organised than last year, if only because there were three water stations rather than just the one.

Sure, there are parts of the course where single-file tracks mean you have to slow to a walking pace for steep descents or ascents, but while I’m usually the first to make fun of a walk-run strategy, I’d like to ‘fess up here and now that I enjoyed every minute of the enforced walk breaks I took yesterday. In fact, some of the Hills of Hell were so steep, and so late in the race, that I couldn’t have run up them without the aid of a pursuing pack of wolves.

So well done to everyone at Puma and TrailPlus. Hellrunner is still the most fun adventure race there is. It’s just a pity that the technical t-shirt with the iron-on plastic logo is so naff…