Cotswold Race the Train, 12th October 2012

Organised by the Chilterns Care Hospice, this is a new race, though not a new idea, with the Tywyn (deepest Wales) train race a well established fixture. Both are a race against a steam train (which stops, to give you a chance), with runners encouraged to put their loved ones on the train to whoop and holler, though on this course you will only see them at the start and finish. Compared to Tywyn, this is much easier to get to for Southerners and will surely gain a big audience, though only about 150 people made it for the first event. Both courses are of similar length – advertised as 14 miles, but actually more like 13, which carries no suggestion of being short changed, more a feeling of “thank whatever you want to give thanks to” after plodding up hills, across fields and through mud. The target is to average around 8 minute miles in order to finish ahead of the train.

Always seeking to add glamour to my life I had booked a Friday night stay at the M5 Services’ finest Days Inn, which not only let me feel like a lord for the night but also allowed me easy access to Worcester parkrun on Saturday morning. As Monty Python didn’t say; a parkrun only 13 miles away – luxury! It may just have been my good mood, but this seemed a particularly familial parkrun, very friendly and chatty around the start even for a total stranger. The course itself starts boringly with shades of PE at school, setting off round a playing field, but then takes in two laps of some glorious woods and my vow to take it easy soon turned into “I think I can take him” repeated until I found myself in third and wondering whether I might have run with the leaders if I’d pushed earlier on. Probably, though, after three weeks of minimal running I’d put a little too much into the parkrun to be in tip top shape and as I arrived back at the M5 palace I was creaking a little bit. Breakfast was a Macdonalds, to keep with my general high rolling style.

On to the train – the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway, to be exact, with Cheltenham Race Course the venue. The excited tone and number of the emails from the organisers had suggested that this was their first race, as did the fact that you (unusually) had to check in on the day despite already having a number. Actually that just seemed quite charming and the organization was very slick. Checking their marketing information showed that they’ve set up bike rides and all sorts of other events in the area, so not new to organizing, just to running. I figured they’d not be producing timed results, and in the end they didn’t do any, just checking us in and out to make sure no one was lost! They’ve promised results for next year; though times are kind of irrelevant in a race like this, it’s nice to see who else ran it. The course was…a brute. A reasonable first mile, slightly downhill following the train tracks, but then out of the race course and uphill for two miles – already I was reduced to a plod, and took my first walk before I was two miles in. Ouch! I dimly remembered a point called “the Top!” on the course map, but was fairly sure that we weren’t there yet, but could still enjoy the next 3 miles which were flat, if exposed. What I didn’t enjoy (turn away here if you have ever used the phrase “too much information”), and what will change my choice of breakfast next time, was the involuntary ‘bit of sick in the mouth’ that appeared out of nowhere (probably not nowhere, but I’m surprised you’re still reading as it is) at 5 miles. I felt fine both before and after, it was just – there.

Bizarre. After another plod we reached the 6.5 mile point, which is where teams of two change over. No one around me was stopping to handover to anyone, but I hope the bloke who galloped past me near the finish was a relay runner. If you’re racing the Welsh train, at the half way point you’re well up on the train, warmed up and as ready as you’ll ever be to take on the “much tougher second half”. Here I was struggling, legs like lead and plodding up any incline. I rallied to join a bloke who’d passed me and we chatted a little with both of us hoping that the marshal who’d suggested it was just over 5 miles to go was right, though with 7 miles on the garmin I doubted it. As we stumbled over stile 5 (7? 9?) I was somewhat put off by his gentle “oh shit” and then the hill that had caused it reduced me to another walk when I realized that it wasn’t raindrops that were falling on my head, but hail.

Finally we got to a downwards stretch, and I was able to pass a couple of runners who’d charged past earlier, though it was so treacherous underfoot that I still couldn’t get up to full speed. At least the course eases up towards the end, and finally we came back to civilization, crossing a road for the second time. In a nice touch, it was closed by police in both directions. I just had time, though, for a Matthews special; after crossing I tried to cut the corner, staying in the road but managed to go the wrong way, plodding up an incline totally unnecessarily. Fortunately I realised after only 300m or so, and I really shouldn’t be bothered that in that gap the first lady had got past me. The downhill start of course meant an uphill finish, though I managed to dig into reserves and at least finish at a run as the train sounded its whistle somewhere behind me. Train – beaten. The hospice volunteers gave us a great welcome, with a medal (some with “I beat the train” on the ribbon), t-shirt, water bottle and precious food ticket straight away. I stumbled over to the food tent, collected soup, sandwich and cake and sat down.

I was as tired as I’ve ever been. The journey home, in rain and sun, was accompanied by a rainbow resting on the bonnet of my car, so it seemed, which was lovely if a bit trippy. Somewhere on the M4 a pigeon took on a Royal Mail van and lost, which tale isn’t going to get me a spot on Test Match Special any time soon, but the cloud of feathers made for a pretty tunnel to travel through, back to the sunshine. All in all, a fabulous event, but one to arrive at fit and ready for distance, rather than tired and undertrained. For the record, I finished in just over 1:49 – should have been 1:46 without the detour, but still slower than the Welsh one (1:43).

Video at http://www.furryfeet.tv/cotswolds/venue_video.php?footprint=760, including some shots of the lovely train!