I once read an article by a well-respected OCR runner, who said his strategy for dealing with tough races was to allow himself to walk whenever he wanted, except when going up hills. The theory was that by the time he reached the top, he’d feel a great sense of achievement and would no longer want to walk. I’ve tested this rule a few times, and it mostly works, but then most races don’t have quite as many hills as the Pieces of Eight half-marathon.
The organisers say the race is ‘challenging’ and on ‘proper trails’. None of the Frontrunners I was with had taken part in a Trail Outlaws event before, so this description was open to interpretation. Not knowing quite what to expect out on the course, most of my fellow Frontrunners sensibly opted for the 10K option. However, once the half-marathon number was pinned to my vest, there was no turning back.
The race begins at the foot of Penshaw Hill looking up at the monument. The Race Director’s final words before the off were to stick to the trails, but that immediately went out the window as 300 people jostled for position. I started charging up the hill, ducking under flailing arms and cutting through the long grass on either side of the steps. Considering the 27°C heat, ‘challenging’ soon began to feel like a bit of an understatement. Lapping around the back of the Monument and down the other side, things quickly settled down as the pack started to spread out, giving everyone a chance to take in the stunning views down to the River Wear.
For the first few miles the track ran down through fields and onto gravelled country park trails, before crossing over the river and following the bank to the west. This is where things started to get interesting. The trail narrowed with jutting tree roots and loose rocks underfoot, and thorny branches restricting the view ahead. The ‘proper trails’ as promised. I promptly tripped, falling to my knees and narrowly avoiding sliding down the bank into the river.
Battered and bruised, I emerged back into the sun to follow the undulating trail alongside the motorway before turning back towards the river. The gravelled track here was more forgiving and even, peppered with steep, wonky steps leading back towards the bridge. On the other side the terrain varied between wide bridleways, muddy bankside tracks and fields of long grass. As my Garmin ticked over the nine-mile mark, the path turned giving a spectacular view of Penshaw Monument shimmering on the horizon. A beautiful scene, but by that point my legs were feeling too weary from constant inclines to appreciate it. Four miles suddenly felt like an awfully long way to go.
By mile 11, the going really got tough. A steep incline stretched off into the distance before turning under the cover of trees and ending at the foot of a severe set of wooden steps set into the mud (which I later found out are nicknamed ‘Satan’s Steps’). I told myself that it would be quicker to walk up them, but mainly because running at that point wasn’t an option. At the top, the sight of a long, relatively smooth decent felt like seeing an oasis in the desert.
The final mile wound along the edge of a grassy field, building up the incline gradually before the final ascent up the back side of Penshaw Hill. With teasing glimpses of the Monument bobbing over the tree line, the end was in sight. Only the small matter of a large hill, a stile to climb over, then some more steep steps and I’d be done. My legs felt like lead and my sunburned arms were starting to sting, but the sight of NFR tops cheering at the finish gave me a much needed boost to power up the hill and across the line.
Someone handed me a bottle of water and someone else gave me jelly sweets. My head was swimming. All I could think about was sitting down. Another person asked to see my medal, which I hadn’t realised I’d been given. The ground felt cool as I rolled onto my back, and I smiled at the realisation that I didn’t have to run up any more hills. ‘Challenging’ was definitely an understatement, but I’ll be back for more next year. And next time, I’ll not fall over. Probably.