An off-road special that has been on my to-do list for some time, and finally this year I entered in time and made it to Chipping Sodbury on a sunny day, wondering what exactly I’d let myself in for. It turns out the answer was mud, falls, laughs, accusations of being “on the turn” and a huge runners’ high.
The day itself was glorious – 17 degrees isn’t something you’ve any right to expect in mid November – so having got there early I was happy to mooch about outside the school that’s used as race HQ in the sun. I admired the fancy dress, which was heavy on merry men and oompa-loompas, and was only slightly concerned by the number of people wearing long sleeved tops under their race vests.
Given that pictures of past events always showed people covered in mud, was this the outfit of a seasoned slog runner, protecting themselves from the conditions? As it turned out – maybe, but it wasn’t necessary, though there the smell in one field showed that the mud there was made up only in part from the ground, and that this wasn’t a field to come home covered in, so perhaps long sleeves were to an extent protective.
Slog day is always Remembrance Sunday and starts with the last post and a 2 minute silence, which is a nice touch, and though the race instructions’ “We want all runners to wear a poppy” seemed a little heavy handed there was no sense that not wearing one was ‘wrong’. A few roads are closed for the start, and we hared off just after 11.00. The first mile and a half are on tarmac, then the race turns into a field for the fun to begin. Race instructions had stressed the need to tie shoelaces tight, which might rule the boy Collier from ever entering, and brilliantly (for my sights-and-sounds experience) the first obstacle is some sucking mud in which one of the runners up ahead had lost his shoe, having to stop and scrabble about for it.
I didn’t actually know how far the race was but had convinced myself, by looking at the winning times (around 56 mins) and listening to an old-timer beforehand describing it as hard but with no serious climbs, that it must be about 10 miles. I was hoping to get under 1hr 10, knowing that would put me fairly well up the field. That turned out to be a good and achievable target, though I was way wrong on the distance. The start was quick, runners perhaps trying to keep up with the youngsters from Bristol University XC club who dominated the race, so my first mile was sub 7 but I was being passed, the second slower but I picked people off in the field, and the third slower still but now I was passing people through the bog. A marshal with a loud hailer assured us we were halfway at just past the 4 mile point, and my decision to trust him and calculate that this was just a slow 9 miler was the right one. I’ve put my mile splits below because that’s the sort of thing I do, and to give you an idea of the variable pace involved.
The second mile took us round the edge of the field, carefully finding all the water available, and then the third mile contained a carefully taped-in section that made sure we had to run through a stream. Variable depth, I found – moving along quite happily as it was 3 in, 4 in, 3in, 5in, 3in…oop, 12 inches deep, try not to fall over. Several times during the race I spotted a running club vest up ahead and found the Wisdom of Watkins – a good thing to contemplate on the run, as it’s short and won’t distract for long – popping in to my head: “we’re road runners, what are we doing?” but my inner voice didn’t really mean it, I was far too busy having a good time, and shouting out “This is what I came for!” at each obstacle.
Mile splits all over the place:
6:38 on the road
7:01 into the field
8:22 through the stream
7:19 onto the grass
7:58 up a grinding hill
8:53 and on, then fall over the sheep dip. Feels like running, only slower
6:46 went over my ankle on this precipitous downhill. Ow
7:45 through the pigs trough
6:20 and finally back to terra firma – accelerate! (not quite a mile)
Overall the race is similar to the grim, in that there are sections to take you knee deep into the water and then a period on land to dry out afterwards, but it is grimmer than grim with grass, not stoney paths, the best surface you can hope for, and even that interspersed with the odd gallop across a ploughed field (no, I hadn’t gone wrong) including one covered with foot-grabbing stalks of some kind of harvested plant. Sorry for the advanced horticultural knowledge there.
The latter half of the race has the really good bits. After a long stretch round the edges of fields with no decent paths, turn a corner and you’re straight in to the sheep dip. The official photos are mainly of this spot, and most people are upright. Most people. Some people from Surrey apparently get all excited at seeing so many marshals, grin and manage not so much to run as swim through it.
Then there are a couple of hay bales to climb/scramble/fall over and then the best-supported section, with the crowd able to stand in the field above while runners have to turn off the field, past the sign saying “You will love the pig’s trough!” and into a longish muddy stream. Again, it’s a 6in, 6in, 12inches fall! 6in, 6in, sucking mud! experience, and the crowd love it.
Finally you get back to the streets of Chipping Sodbury, hit the tarmac and find out what you’ve got left. To my huge satisfaction I was able to pass a Nailsea runner old enough to be my dad without evening needing my usual OAP-breaking sprint finish, accelerate and stick with a group to the finish. Then straight to the bag drop – carried out with 26.2 levels of efficiency – and the hose-down before getting in to the showers before too much of a queue built up. The changing rooms were a surprise on two levels. Firstly because the ladies running the refreshment stall had to (?) use the sink right next to the naked queue for the showers to refill
their kettle. Secondly – and this may be the cause of the first – because the level of buffness hit “enough that enough a hetero runner feels the need to mention it”. I’m used to wiry runners, but there were chiselled abs and bronzed bodies a-plenty. It may be because this is a race filled with people who are fit but don’t routinely run races, but I’ve never seen so many fit bodies in a changing room before.
Even the aftermath was great. I knew a couple of friends ran the race each year, but it turned out to be actually a big social meet, so I got some unexpected support on the way round and then hit Sodbury for a pizza in a group of 20 or so before the drive home. It’s a brilliant, brilliant race, and if anyone else fancies it I’m definitely aiming to do it again next year.
For comparison! Cross Country pace the day before – bit of a hill, twice, but fairly consistent
Sodbury slog – the spots where I fell over are obvious