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It is dark. I am in a wood. I am on my hands and knees in a couple of feet of stinking, fetid mud, which I later learn is teeming with frogs. I am vaguely aware of dozens of people around me, shouting. To add to the weirdness, there is a man behind me dressed as Robin Hood. I wonder for a fleeting second how I managed to find myself in this situation, take a deep breath, and go under.
Rewind a few months: my wife, Julie, whose interest in sports was previously confined to riding horses, got it into her head to do the 5k race at the Rat Race Legends of Sherwood event at Sherwood Pines Forest Park near Mansfield. There was no precedent for this, other than a valiant crack at the Tesco Race for Life a couple of years earlier. I believe a couple of her friends may have talked her into it. When she asked me if I wanted to join me, I said sure, sign me up, in fact you know what? I’ll do the 10k. How hard can it be?
One online entry later, I realised that I didn’t really “do” running. Never have – it’s boring, and painful. I do a lot of cycling, so I thought I was reasonably fit. Still, I thought, I’d better get a bit of training in. Julie and I started with some gentle jogging around the block, and within a few weeks we had worked our way up to a few miles each trip. I invested in some “proper” trail running shoes and took to the trails. My excursions round the local woods started as gasping, lurching embarrassments, but as the weeks passed my fitness improved so I was able to do five miles with relative ease, and by now running was no longer boring, or painful; in fact I was actually enjoying scampering along the woodland trails, particularly on those occasions when I would catch a glimpse of a fox or a badger. By the time race day came round, I felt as ready as I would get.
Registration at the event was quick and efficient. We were issued with our race numbers, timing chips and very handsome Notorious Night Runs souvenir “technical” T-shirts. After a coffee and a browse round the Rat Race mobile shop (and some practice attempts at the pair of imposing six foot walls which would be our final obstacle), Julie lined up with the other starters for the 5k race. There were several runners in fancy dress, including, rather randomly, a Santa Claus. And off they went.
The runners galloped over the first obstacle, a row of hay bales, and disappeared into the woods. A mere 38 minutes later, the leader reappeared, launched himself effortlessly over the two hideously high walls and crossed the finish line. 20 minutes or so later, Julie came into view, covered from head to foot in mud but beaming from ear to ear. I felt very proud. She was a bit fragrant though.
As the afternoon drew on, the shadows lengthened and the temperature dropped noticeably. The 10k racers began to amass around the start area. By now feeling decidedly nervous, I took the opportunity to size up “the competition”. Near the start line I saw a man wearing compression gear and what appeared to be some kind of gloves on his feet. Though it was clear that he (and the lycra-clad bunch around him) was taking the race seriously, he had a big grin on his face and was cheerfully wiggling his toes. Further back among the 900-plus starters there were many, many runners in fancy dress, including plenty dressed as merry men (and women) in honour of Sherwood’s most famous son.
It was not quite dark when the starting hooter sounded. With little regard for pacing over the distance ahead (billed as 10k “and then some”) the whole pack took off like the clappers, to enormous cheers from the sizable crowd of spectators.
After the first mile or so the runners began to settle into a more sensible pace. Early in the race we took to tortuously narrow trails through thick pine plantations; if it was not quite dark in the start-line clearing, it certainly was in there. Overtaking opportunities by now were limited, a point I found myself regretting when I got stuck for a while behind a burly man in a pink velvet dress (I think the effect he was looking for was Maid Marian). There was a minor bottleneck at the second obstacle, a crawl tunnel, though I suspect that the breather was welcome to many. The course went to the furthest reaches of the Pines, where there was a particularly tough section which involved snaking up and down a thirty foot back about a dozen times – a real thigh burner.
By now it was totally dark and pleasantly still. The only sounds were footfalls and breathing, and the trees were lit by the beams of dozens of head torches. The route was well marked throughout, although in the mid-section the main stream of runners was joined by a second line of runners coming from the left – a genuine case of a wrong turning, or a “local” leading runners along a cheeky short cut? Who knows. In the dark it was more or less impossible to maintain any sense of direction anyway. By now a real camaraderie had taken hold among the runners, who were calling the hazards to each other (“Stump! Log! Hole!”) to help avoid mishaps. A runner slipped near me halfway through “Spooky Wood”, but his number was reported to the next marshal to ensure he came through (to their credit, the organisers had said that any runner withdrawing from the race to help an injured competitor would get a free entry for the next year’s race).
It was difficult to gauge what distance had been covered over the uneven ground in the dark, but eventually we came within earshot of the finishing arena; through the trees the announcements of runners coming home (probably the guy with gloves on his feet) were audible, as well as the cheers from the raucous crowd. After dealing with the aforementioned fetid swamp, I staggered the last couple of miles, collapsed through the last few obstacles, rounded the trees into the arena… and came face to face with the Walls of Doom. My upper body strength is unimpressive at the best of times, but by now there was no way on Earth that I was getting over without some help. Fortunately, the spirit of Sherwood was alive and kicking. Runners were cheerfully helping each other over the wall, and after two failed attempts I felt a push on my foot that boosted me over on my third. Thank you, whoever you are. I landed with no elegance whatsoever, and lurched over the finish line, where I was handed my handsome finisher’s medal and the announcer confirmed my position as 187th out of 904 eventual finishers. I’ll take that, first time out!
Julie and I both thoroughly enjoyed the Legends of Sherwood event, which was equally suitable for fun runners and serious racers. The entry fee was very reasonable given the obvious logistical challenges of marking out a route on this kind of terrain, not to mention the excellent souvenir T-shirt and the quality finishers’ medals – as well as free camping (one point to mention here – an unfortunate absence of shower facilities, apart from the man with the cold hosepipe at the finish line. I believe showers are available at the other three Notorious Night Runs. I was still picking muck out my ears three days later.) The route was well marked, challenging and varied, though I did hear of some substantial bottlenecks at obstacles further back in the field, which meant some runners were getting chilly while waiting. But these are minor gripes in the scheme of things – congratulations to Rat Race on an excellent event – we’ll certainly be signing up for 2013.