The Deer Park Dash 10k: The non-trail trail race.

‘It’s a 10k trail race,’ I proclaim confidently, ‘around the grounds of some beautiful Estate in Chester.’

‘Sounds great!’ Gav replies. ‘I wonder how “traily” it is, though?’ he continues. We’ve fallen foul of this being used to describe everything from balls-out fell races (Bingley and Ilkely, to name but a few) to more steady jaunts through woodland paths. Ironically, the Trailblazer Half Marathon in Clumber Park falls into this latter category. Hard in its own way, but the trails are at least a) visible and b) not vertical.

Anyway, without further ado – and for no other reason than it is a CFD (a Child Free Day) – we enter the Deer Park Dash 10k. Job done.

A day or so later, a large ‘signed for’ envelope arrives through the post which always generates some level of excitement. What could it be? A cheque reimbursing us hundreds of pounds from Daylight Robbers, the HMRC? A hand-written invitation to meet Paula Radcliffe at her Font Romeu training base, and spend a week discussing how to progress from being a marginally shit runner to a slightly less-shit one? (it’s all relative.) It is neither of those things. Instead, I take out of the envelope the largest neon car parking pass I’ve ever seen. There is no sign of any race numbers. How odd. After pausing briefly to consider whether we’ve in fact entered into a car rally, Gav and I shrug in mirrored bemusement.

As usual, our travel to the race is planned meticulously to factor in a good hour-and-a-half of sitting in the car doing fuck all other than pinning and re-pinning numbers to our vests, and so we set off only slightly after the crack of dawn. ‘Have you got your trail shoes?’ I ask Gav, just before we heave our unnecessary bags into the car. ‘And what about your road shoes, just in case? It’s been quite dry out, so you never know – roadies may be an option.’ It’s an afterthought, but he agrees.

The Sat Nav helpfully directs us towards the middle of a forest and a magical-looking gatehouse, with absolutely no sign of life. ‘We are ridiculously early, though,’ I suggest hopefully, as we glance unconvincingly up at the gatehouse / castle / fortress / somebody’s ‘Grand Designs’-esque home, and then back at each other, with a further quizzical look. Short of Hansel & Gretel tip-toeing past the car scattering Dunkin’ Donut crumbs as they go, it is a rather bizarre fairy tale scene.

‘This doesn’t look right,’ Gav says. And it isn’t. After six phone calls to Bob on Security, and a series of reverse-and-drive-back-down-the-non-recognised-public-highway manoeuvres, we eventually reach the ‘correct’ gate, and queue up behind a ’67 plate Land Rover Discovery which has a polish on it akin to Mr Tumble’s nose (and in the exact same shade of rouge.) Holding our oversized neon car-parking pass proudly at the window, we are ushered through the gates by two middle-aged Hi-Vis vest wearers, and pull up in the event carpark.

The family in front of us open the boot of their Audi estate to reveal a stylish crate filled with a selection of Hunter wellington boots, and the youngest – Jonty – is mildly admonished for straying too far from the expensive corporate saloon. ‘Shit, it’s posh here, isn’t it, Gav?’ I say, as I dig around in my bag for the slice of cold toast I brought along in a plastic sandwich bag (I don’t like waste.)

Gav needs the loo, and so I am left to chew on my cold toast (it’s a Warburton’s Farmhouse crust) whilst watching Jonty and his sisters buzzing about in giddy excitement. They are now adorned in official ‘Deer Park Dash’ race T-shirts, which come down to their knees.

I swallow the last of my cold, claggy carbs, and see that Gav is marching back to the car at some pace, armed with our A3-size race numbers, and expensively-packaged race t-shirts. I already feel guilty, knowing that soon enough mine will be stuffed in the drawer with the rest of the Last Resort Bedtime Wear and/or Emergency Decorating attire.

Gav: ‘So, I asked the guy on the desk what the trails are like,’ he says, with a kind of I-should-have-known look on his face, ‘… and it’s all on tarmac.’

Me: ‘What?’

Gav: ‘It’s on tarmac. All paths. No trails. Did you even read the event info? There is not a single trail in sight. Not even any grass. Just tarmac. All the way.’

Me: ‘Oh. Right.’

Me again [sounding too jovial]: ‘Good job we brought our road shoes then, isn’t it? Ha ha ha!’

Gav: [silence]

I feel like a dickhead.

And it was a good job we’d brought our road shoes along – albeit I am currently in pre-litigious discussions with a certain Sports Shoes supplier about a certain hole which has appeared in my Adidas Ultras within 8 weeks of purchase (and at £129 they can kiss my ring if they even think about arguing that it’s ‘wear and tear’.) Anyway, I digress.

The bloke on the microphone announces that the ‘official warm up is about to commence’ and so, with 15 minutes to the start of the non-trail trail race, we get out of the car and meander over to the action. I say action, but there are a small handful of people doing questionable standing lunges in front of Eccleston’s most recently-qualified Personal Trainer. He does well, and the crowd (eventually) join in.

A tall, blonde woman floats past me, and as she glances over in my direction I immediately recognise her. I point at her and mutter something stupid like, ‘is that you? Off breakfast telly?’ I am momentarily thrown by the sensory overload and so can’t place her name in time, but I know that she is Louise Minchin. She comes across and comments on my striking Zoot! triathlon vest. I wonder how many people must point and stare and not-quite-say-hello to her, as she chats warmly about duathlons and qualifying times. We establish that there is some commonality, and she informs me of a GB age-group qualifying duathlon happening at Oulton Park in October. ‘Oooh, I’m doing that one!’ I say excitedly, and I wonder if I am really having a conversation about duathlons with the lovely blonde lady off breakfast telly.

We move over to the start line, where there is a man dressed as a deer. He’s standing quite near the front, and I wonder if he is a particularly fast deer*. I have no I-deer (sorry.) The countdown from 5 seems to come out of nowhere, and then we’re off. I fly off and I know I’m in second place to the woman who was hovering confidently at the front of the start line. In my head, I’m being hunted down by The Blonde Lady From Breakfast Telly, and so I run hard, not wishing to disgrace myself (because I have somehow convinced myself that Ms Minchin gives two shits how fast / slow I am, and therefore, I don’t want to disappoint.)

But my race fitness isn’t in line with my current ambitions, and so after 5k I’m pretty much spent. We turn at the corner, and I see Gav approaching. He’s not too far behind me. He shouts something lovely and encouraging, but I can’t speak and so I don’t reply. I gulp a drink at the water station, and then set off again. I see my new BBC Breakfast Friend coming towards me in the opposite direction, and I think I hear her give me a mini-whoop of encouragement. I run fast again, but I am running out of steam. When I run, my pace is good, but I want to stop. I want to stop so badly, and I know I can’t keep this pace going. This is only 10k, Rach! What the hell is wrong with you? I berate myself for failing, and for not being good enough. I stop briefly and take a breath. I run again, and some of the slower runners who may have done only half the distance I have look across at me with some confusion, as if they didn’t expect me to show any signs of struggle. It angers me, because I am struggling. I am hurting, and I want to stop – again.

My pace continues to be fast, but I also keep wanting to stop. I can’t understand why, and it frustrates me**. I stop again, and look behind me. I know I’m still in 2nd place (ladies), and I’m half expecting a troop of females to trample me down and leave me for dead. Instead, I see a UKRunChat vest, and he shouts at me, ‘Keep going! Come on, lass, keep going!’ He catches up with me, and I try to stick with him, but I am on my last legs.

I try and I try and I keep fucking trying, and I will it to end. I look at my watch, and my time is disappointing. I try to rationalise with myself the ‘whys’, and I dig deep to congratulate myself for coming 2nd lady, at least. This – I remind myself – means that there was only one other female runner faster than me on the course, today. But, it is of little consolation. I still feel let down by my stop/start laboured efforts.

I sit down on the grass and feel flat.

A few minutes later, Gav approaches the finish line. I can see that he’s worked just as hard as me, and he makes a fuss of ‘how well I’ve done’. I find it hard to believe him, but then I realise that I sound like a pathetic, self-defeating, perfectionist wanker. He puts me straight on a few things, and we head back to the car.

Jonty and his folks are just packing up. The dad looks sweaty from his fun-run efforts with the kids, and they pile themselves and their Hunter wellingtons back into the Audi Estate. I smile as I inhale the remaining half of a croissant I stuffed into my bag earlier, because I don’t like waste.

I drive back home, and I feel a cacophony of emotions: relief, joy, elation, fatigue, pride, frustration, but mainly joy. And I’m wondering when I’ll see my new BBC Breakfast Friend again. And I’ve got a funny feeling I will… #Jan2018

*Gav beat the deer. Just.

**Afterwards, Gav reminds me that I have been injured for 7 months of this year, and have barely run more than 15 miles a week for over 9 months. This – he suggests – may be ‘why’.

 

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Q: When is a race not a race?

A: When I couldn’t give a Fat Rascal about anything other than finishing it.

‘I think I want to enter into a race again, Gav.’ I said. ‘It’s time to get over the fear.’

What’s the worst that could happen?

We chose the Ilkley Trail race on Bank Holiday Monday. It worked around the delicate orchestrating of childcare arrangements courtesy of two broken homes (sob*) having successfully amalgamated into one complete madhouse**

Regardless, it wasn’t an obvious choice for a tentative first race back since the debacle of the Dewsbury 10k back in February, during which I’d been forced to make the Walk of Shame back to the start after only 1.5 miles of purgatory (before being picked up by the Unfortunate Bastards Sweeper Bus.) That was my last race: it hurt my legs, my Achilles, and my pride.

I’ve written a lot recently about race anxiety. I’ve been known to have sleepless night before Parkrun. Yes, seriously. I’ve woken up with palpitations in a goose-bumped, fuzzy-headed clammy sweat, cleaned the fridge, and set off a good two hours before the marshals have even pressed ‘SNOOZE’ on their teasmade.

And why? I have no answer. It doesn’t really matter: none of it does. Nobody ultimately cares how I do, or what time I drag my carcass across the finish line. I used to think that it matters, and that it proved something about who I was, and who I could be. But it doesn’t. Successes are fleeting. They’re like the yellow marzipan around a Battenberg: a nice-to-have. Would you still enjoy the pink and yellow sponge cake squares without the yellow marzipan encasement? Yes, you would. Or I would, at least.

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A loss of form, however, separates the ego from the true self. It strips away the protective marzipan comfort of glory, and the pseudo almondy mask of acknowledgement. Injury; illness; life events. Any one of them can suddenly derail even the most cock-sure of egos, and have it tumble from the gilded perch on which it has merrily swung.

Q: What’s left then?

A: The pink and yellow sponge cake squares.

I woke on the Bank Holiday Monday having thoroughly processed and digested my ‘who am I?’ Battenberg analogy (I can only apologise for inadvertently stumbling across this clumsy pun.) I’d slept, and I’d slept well. PHEW! This was a good start. No heart racing, no palpitations, and no reaching for the proverbial mushroom bag. It’s all under control, Rach. And it was.

Resting heart rate: 54.

Kit on, bags packed, myself and the other half of me, commonly known as ‘Gav Dodd Fax’, headed out under a heavy sky in the direction of Ilkley. ‘I don’t feel nervous, Gav. Do you?’ I ventured.

‘No, not a bit,’ he replied. And he meant it.

‘But I don’t feel anything! No butterflies, no adrenalin, no tension. No nothing! I slept like a baby and haven’t taken to grinding my teeth, or cleaning out the fridge at 6am. It feels strange, that’s all.’ I continued, talking to myself as much as I was to him.

‘It’s the furthest we’ve run in months, Rach’ he replied matter-of-factly in his pre-8am tired tone, ‘And we’re only just starting to build our fitness back up. What can we expect?’

He was right.

We were – true to form – a good hour too early on arrival at the Ilkley Lido. With the heated seats on low, I slurped the remnants of cold coffee from my favourite Heisenberg travel mug, whilst Gav took half a dozen attempts to pin a small square of paper onto the front of a vest. It felt like coming home.

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Do these look like faces that could give a fat rascal?

‘Are you feeling nervous yet, Gav?’ I asked, as he stabbed his thumb yet again with a pin.

‘Nope. Not at all,’ he replied, shortly followed by, ‘is my number straight?’

And then the already slate-grey heavens must have remembered that it was a national Bank Holiday, and so began to spew relentlessly. For fuck’s sake.

‘I guess we’d better warm up, then’ we appeared to say in unison as the car clock nonchalantly indicated that it was a quarter past the hour.

Once our trainers had been replaced by the more unfamiliar off-roadies, we stepped out into the incessant shower pouring from a monochrome sky, and began to jog – no, hobble – up the grassy banking towards the start of the race. We continued slowly up the offensive hill in some kind of torturous pre-race dress rehearsal of what was about to come.

It’s quite possibly the worst start to any race. A measly hundred metres of flat followed by up, up, and then some more up.

‘Jesus, Gav. I’m fucked.’ I panted, stopping my pathetic attempt at a warm-up jog only a quarter of the way up the offensive hill, and stared at him, blankly. ‘And this is just the warm up!’ I could tell from his expression that my words echoed his exact thoughts.

Back down at the start line, we hung around at the back like a pair of shy teenagers trying to smoke menthols behind the bike sheds. ‘Start off slowly, Rach. And remember – it doesn’t matter. None of it matters.’

He was right.

We set off slowly, as Gav suggested, towards the back of the pack. My legs relaxed thanks to the entire absence of any pressure, and they took off slowly up the hillside. Steadily inching past a fair number of runners, they made it to the top. What had seemed incredulous whilst tottering about on our anxiety-inducing warm up was – in fact – perfectly feasible. My legs handled it: they were (just about) up to the job.  The climb continued, and – unbelievably – my legs were still turning over. A couple of miles in, and I’d pulled ahead. But lack of racing fitness kicked in, and I took the opportunity to pull over and wait for my Gav Dodd Fax who was sticking to his guns and approaching at a consistent, steady pace. I was thankful for the rest.

I’ll spare you the minutiae: I stopped a bit, and I started again. I felt temporarily beaten, and then mildly triumphant for fighting back. The rain was cold and cleansing, washing away any worries about performance, PBs or lack of form. I’m here, and I’m back running… No, I’m back RACING! Only racing in a different way. Free from heaviness and pressure; stress and worry. Racing on my terms, and running as well – or not – as my body could, on this day, today.

Crossing the finish line I was 5 minutes slower than the last time I’d tackled the very same beast back in 2015, when – entirely without injury, illness, life event or force majeure – I was happily swinging away on my merry little perch. But I didn’t care. I’d happily nibble on the pink and yellow sponge cake squares – minus the (admittedly delicious) yellow marzipan. Today, I was grateful for the squares.

Gav came over the line shortly afterwards, visibility having been an issue whilst having no wipers on his face furniture.

‘Bloody hell, that was tough, wasn’t it?’ he said, attempting to peer through his now entirely opaque spectacles.

‘No shit it was. Do you fancy going to Betty’s for a Fat Rascal?’

They don’t sell Battenberg.

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*not really

**hashtag smiley face