It’s 0700 hours on Saturday 14th January and my alarm has just gone off. Must be time for the Hell Down South Hellrunner.
For the uninitiated, the Hellrunner series is either 10 or 12 miles of extreme cross country running. Featuring the “Bog of Doom” and the “Hills of Hell”, the run markets itself as “Tougher than a Tough Mudder”.
Why oh why would anybody ever sign up to this sort of madness? Well in my case, my friends Bushy and River and others have done this and it has always been on my list, so as soon as my friend Mark from work asked if I wanted to join in I jumped at the chance. To coin my usual catchphrase, how hard can it be?
The Hellrunner was on Longmoor Army Base, which is only about 20 minutes from my
house. We had been warned by the race organisers that it would take a while to get into the car parking, so I left with what I thought was plenty of time. Sadly it took a bit longer than I expected to get from the motorway into the venue. I was in phoning Mark (who was better organised and already there) and he was reporting back that the start was delayed by 10-15 mins. Luckily, I was not the only one who had underestimated how long it would take to get in. This meant that our wave was due to start at 10.15
Parking my car and checking the time it was 11 minutes past 10. I had been directed to park quite some distance from the race start, so I grabbed my gear and started to run towards the start. Over a motorway bridge then through a field I stopped for a quick wee in a portaloo and met Mark outside the bag drop just as the 11.15 wave started running. Dumping the bag at the bag drop, Mark shouted to me that we could still go if we were quick, so I tied my shoes a bit tighter and together we ran to the start and we were off.
Not exactly the race start I had hoped for, and I jovially commented to Mark that I was sure that Mo Farah did a bit more warming up for his races than just turn up and go for it. I had really wanted to do a proper warm up as the trail was all off road and very hilly and I wanted to make sure that my body was ready for the challenge. Still too late for that now. I was off and running in my first ever Hellrunner.
Catching up the pack
Mark is a great runner and he set the initial pace as we set off over the uneven terrain, pocked with deep muddy puddles with jagged ice floating on the top. Soon we caught up with the tail end of the runners from our start time and started to overtake a few. The course was up and down steep sandy banks, and wound few beautiful heathland. There were a few deep gullys we had to run through, jumping into the black ooze then climbing up the other side. Despite having cold feet I was loving this sort of running. I never get much of a chance to run true cross country like this and it was definitely up my street.
As usual the GPS on my watch let me down and started to tell me we had done a lot less distance than I knew we had run, but instinctively I knew we had covered the first mile in a good time and were both carving our way through the pack nicely. It felt good to be overtaking other people (as usually I am the one being overtaken) and I was enjoying Mark’s company and chatting with the other runners. Most encouragingly was I felt good. It was great to be out running my first race of the year and as this is such a huge year of running for me, even better to have it underway.
Twist and CRACK
Somewhere between mile 1 and 2 there was a short uphill followed by a brief winding technical section though a wooded area. This section was fairly narrow and there were quite a few runners around still so we had to pick our way through carefully. Turning right to follow the group my left foot went into a hole that I hadn’t seen, my ankle rolled forward and I heard and felt a double crack in my left ankle. I immediately stopped, my ankle searing with pain. Uttering some sort of expletive, I grabbed a tree and stood on one leg breathing heavily trying to recover from the sudden shock. Mark had stopped next to me and was asking me how I was, encouraging me to try and put some weight on my ankle. Gingerly I put my ankle down and it was not good. The pain was intense as I put my weight through it and I was cursing my bad luck. Never the less, standing around was achieving nothing. Even if I was going to be forced out of the race through injury there was no chance of being collected by the marshall in the middle of a wood. We had only one choice, keep going.
Limping forward at a slow walk I was in considerable pain, but I have had twisted ankles many times playing football and knew that you could sometimes walk it off. After a minute of walking I sped up into a very slow jog, but each step was genuine agony. Mark turned to me and said “there is no way you are quitting. I will carry you over the line if I have to, but we are finishing this” and I absolutely agreed with him. There was not a single thought in my mind about stopping. I am an Ironman for god sakes. If I can complete one of the hardest races in the world, I can definitely run 8 or so miles on a twisted ankle.
Slowly speeding up we continued forward. After a mile or so more Mark confessed in me that he was struggling with his left knee, so we were hardly fighting fit but we kept on going. For me, downhills were absolute agony. For Mark, it was the opposite. He was OK going down but struggled up the hills. As this course was almost 100% hills we were making slow progress, but we were still moving forwards.
Enjoying the run
Despite my ankle pain and Mark struggling with his knee, we were enjoying the run. The scenery was breathtaking at times and the course so varied that you never knew what was round the corner. Hills so steep you were on all fours to get up them, then down the other side grabbing trees and shrubs to slow your descent, the race was brilliant. We knew we had both the Hills of Hell and the Bog of Doom to come, but to be honest soaking my ankle in a freezing cold bog seemed like a great option to me.
Soon we arrived at the first bog, which is not the Bog of Doom but might as well have been. Entering into it, the silt was incredibly deep, the water absolutely freezing and there were sunken logs to get your feet stuck under. Wading through it was not easy, but together Mark and I made our way through. I thought I had lost Mark at one point as he almost submerged beneath the murky down brown water, but he recovered, I pulled him up and we went on.
Mark just recovering and avoiding a full dunking
Out of the first bog
Soon we emerged out of the first bog together and on we went. It was very cold, and the bog had really taken it out of Mark who actually seemed out of breath for the first time in the race. In fact, I think this is the first time I have ever seem Mark out of breath. He really is super fit, but the bog had taken it’s toll. Never the less, we had at least 4 miles to go, still had the Hills of Hell and the Bog of Doom and were both carrying injury, so we needed to get on with it.
Devil’s Disco and Hills of Hell
Jogging further on we soon saw a group of cheerleaders dressed all in white and a big tent pumping out dance music. This was the Devil’s Disco, and as we ran through the tent and grabbed some water and some sort of energy shot I realised we were getting closer to the finish. Following the tent came a serious downhill, which I really struggled with. Getting to the bottom my ankle was screaming at me. I had to take a moment to compose myself. Surely we didn’t have that much further to go and these Hills of Hell couldn’t be that bad.
Continuing on we climbed more hills and down the other side, ran more single track and just kept on going. Then we were finally there, the Hills of Hell. These are essentially a group of extremely steep trails up and down the same couple of hills. You would slip and slide down one, only to turn 180 degrees on a switchback and go straight back up the same hill on a slightly different trail. I could tell that Mark was struggling a bit at this point, as every time we got to yet another hill he would say “not another one”. Luckily I could sense there was an element of comedy in his voice and knew that deep down he was enjoying himself, despite how hard he was finding the race.
Due to my ankle injury slowing me down, I actually felt OK. Actually I felt good. I didn’t feel tired or fatigued in any way, just had a very hurty ankle. I knew how bad my ankle was when we started down a hill and Mark said to me “bloody hell James, your ankle looks terrible”. I hadn’t been looking at it. All I could manage in reply was “it feels terrible too”. We laughed and then carried on.
Bog of Doom and done
Cresting yet another of the Hills of Hell, we were told by the marshall that it was the last one, and all we had left was a quick downhill, the Bog of Doom and we were done. On we ran and we could see the bog, hear the music pumping out and see the crowd. Tentatively sliding myself into the bog, I was quickly chest deep in very cold water. Wading through, I was overtaking people. Joking with Mark that I had found my forte in cross country, I pushed forward. Waving at the spectators and high fiving the marshall I felt the usual boost that you do at the end of any race. Despite having to complete the vast majority of the course on a very dodgy ankle I had done it.
I was delighted for Mark as well, who was clearly suffering with his knee despite not complaining about it. I knew how much he had been feeling it at the end of the race and was pleased we had made it through together.
Exiting the Bog of Doom we were done. A quick downhill and then over the line. It had taken us 2hrs and 30 minutes to cover the 10 miles of the course. 2hrs 30 minutes of hard graft.
Across the line and we were finished the Hellrunner Hell Down South
Collecting my bag and then limping over to Mark’s car we discussed the event and how we felt. Remarkably I felt absolutely fine. Other than the ankle, I felt as if I could just turn around and do the whole thing again. Perhaps I am a bit fitter than I give myself credit for, or just so pig headed that I won’t quit. Either way it gets results.
Arriving at Mark’s car I had a look at my ankle for the first time and was shocked to see a huge swelling on the ankle bone. You can hopefully see this in the picture. Having completed the race the adrenaline was dying down and my ankle was really starting to hurt.
Mark was good enough to drive me back to my car and I drove home. Consulting with my wife, I decided to visit the hospital in the morning and see what they thought.
Diagnosis has been given that it is a sprained ankle and I should keep off it for 6 weeks. This will seriously dent my training for 2017, but I don’t really care.
I loved the Hellrunner, loved running it with Mark and will definitely be back next year.
Will keep you all updated as to how the recovery goes.
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