This was the race that was never meant to be. I signed up with some friends last year, planned a big, child free weekend away, and then had to cancel due to injury. This year, we all signed up again, and my friends pulled out, as their children were involved in gymnastic competitions.
Then the pre race jitters began. I have these every time I race. Last time I raced, I was convinced the tendinitis that stopped me racing last year had returned. This time, my Achilles was sore for a fortnight before the race. I'd overtrained, and ended up taking ten days off to rest it. It felt ok, and I'd done a couple of five mile runs that felt comfortable, but in my head, this was going to be a problem. On the way up to the Lake District, I was certain I would be too cold, the weather would be awful, I hadn't got the right kit... And on it went.
On arrival in Hawkshead, the atmosphere hit us. People were out to race, to do well, but over all, there seemed to be an atmosphere of fun. I relaxed a bit. I registered, collected my quite cool t shirt (some people put them on straight away, to run in, but there was no way I was running in anything other than Spartan colours!) and we had a picnic.
And then a funny thing happened. I got changed, put my brand new, very white Spartan top on, shorts, trainers, and my worries seemed to be edge away a little. The samba band started to play, and I got fidgety, pumped full of nervous energy. I started to enjoy myself.
I met other Spartans, Terry and Jon, who were also running, and Terry's wife Jacq, who was doing the 10k. We talked about what to expect, the conditions and so on.
I'd forgotten how full of nervous energy I get at the start of a race. When we lined up we had a safety briefing and the joking, the cameraderie began to be evident. My wife and daughter had come to watch they race, and when we set off, it was to the sound of my daughter shouting "Try and win, Daddy!" There isn't a better way to start a race than that.
We had a short blast on the road, before heading up the trail. This was a bit steep, and plenty of folks were walking already. I kept on going at what felt like a comfortable pace for me. I've been on enough Spartan runs with Wallman heading up steepish slopes right at the start for this not to phase me too much.
Sometimes, it takes doing something for you to understand the advice that you've been given about doing that thing. This is what happened to me on the run. In January, when it snowed, I was very unsure about the Helsby Half Marathon that I'd entered. My head wasn't in the right place for it, and I remember having a conversation with Paul Chrisp, where he told me how much he loved racing, the buzz and excitement of it all. I was sceptical, but right then, having just started, heading up the hillside, slowly overtaking people, I was with him 100%.
My next bit of Spartan advice came from Wallman. I don't remember it word for word, but it was along the lines of "Get a bloody move on, this is a running club, not a jogging club!" And with Dave's kind words echoing in my head, I started taking people on the climb.
This conflicted with the advice I'd had the night before, and this bothered me a bit. Hackos had kindly helped with my carb loading, and told me very clearly that this was not my A race. The 33 mile Sandstone Trail ultra marathon (my first) was only a fortnight away, and there was no way I wanted to injure myself, or push too hard beforehand. So once the climb was out of the way, I settled in and took up a steady pace. And my worries about the Sandstone Challenge, my Achilles, that job I should have done before I left work the day before, the difficult week I had ahead, all faded away. I looked around and took in the spectacular views. I ran absolutely in the moment, focusing on one foot in front of the other.
At the start, all of us went to lengths to go round the mud where we could, there wasn't that much of it, so a few extra steps made no difference.
The terrain flattened a little, and people began to spread out. Occasionally I'd get overtaken, and this always used to really wind me up. I'd get pulled along trying to catch up, but Hackos' advice rang in my ears, and so did something John Kleiser said to me, about not minding what position he came in, it was running the race that was important. People overtook me. I overtook some other people. I realised as I ran that the run was more important. My position didn't matter to me. How I took the next hill, whether I did myself justice, that was what mattered. And so I pushed on.
I was glad of the first water station, just before things went uphill again. At the top of the hill, I was beginning to feel a stitch, so I walked for a short way and kept on pushing. The descent became quite technical, in a way I wasn't used to. Again, the run became all about living in the moment, where to put each foot.
And then Wallman's advice kicked back in. I stayed behind a couple of guys for a while and we chatted a little. They asked very politely if I wanted to get past. I declined (just as politely!) and we carried on. But I really did want to push past. Very, very much. I also knew that we were heading to the infamous Coffin Trail, and my piece of advice from Paul Atherton, who said on Facebook that morning, "Save something for the Coffin trial, it's a doozy!" So I saved something, until we hit the flat, and then I overtook, despite my best intentions to take things easy.
At that point, we began a a game of cat and mouse for the remaining few miles. They passed me again before the Coffin Trail climb. I ran up the first section of it, passing them on the way. I walked for a lot of it, but I walked fast, probably as fast as I had been running, and most importantly, still passed people.
The route downhill from the summit was the route that we had taken uphill at the start, and wasn't as easy as I remembered it. They passed me on the way down. I've never run quite such a technical descent. My whole body was twisting and turning, arms everywhere to keep balance. I'm not sure I've ever had so much fun either.
Nobody cared about the mud at this point, we were all straight through every puddle in an effort to get down as fast as we could. When we hit the flat, and were told it was just a mile back into the village, the guys I'd been chasing were just in front. I overtook, so did they. We ran through the final field, I say field, I went up to my knees in last week's rainwater at one point in the swamp.
And then we turned the corner, and could see the finish line. Just a short section up the road, round the field and over the line. I was right behind them. And now for my last piece of advice, which was yelled at me at top volume as I struggled to finish the Pie and Peas 5 mile race last August. I wasn't doing well on the final sprint, when Andy Mallagh told me as only an ex-Army sergeant could; that there was no way I was going to let the old guy coming up behind me overtake, to pump my arms and run! I did then, and I did now. I flew past both of them, round the field and finished in 1:35, yelling "Sparta!" As I crossed the line. I think I scared a few people too!
I saw Terry and Jon afterwards, and they'd both come in faster than me, but I found I really didn't care. I'd loved every minute of the race, not because of the time I came in at, or my position, but because of the way it enabled me to live in the moment, to be competitive without getting wound up that I didn't come first, to take in some amazing views.
I ran this race for the pleasure of running. Chasing a time isn't as enjoyable as just running. This is a race I'll be coming back to another year. In the meantime, things are getting ultra. For Sparta!