I take deep, ragged breaths, sucking air into my lungs. Sweat runs freely down my forehead and stings my eyes. Blinking through salty tears, I look up. Ahead of me, through the trees, I can see sunshine marking the top of the hill. It has been a long climb over tree roots and up steps, across rocks, slipping in the recently-soaked mud. I can hear the breathing of the others around me. Some have paused to take a breather, others are pushing heroically on.
Breaking out of the trees, the path levels off and a fantastic vista opens up in front of me. The path angles across a grassy meadow with sheer, formidable cliffs of rock beyond, plunging down into unseen depths. This is it. The final push across the field, up a slope through bracken, the recent rain evaporating from the bushes in front of my eyes. Passing some cows, I take a corner and begin the last few metres. Up ahead I can see flags waving and a crowd of people. Reaching the crowd, I stumble towards the marquee and take a moment to recover enough to be able to utter a few words: “is this where you register for the race?”
Let me explain.
Last weekend I took part in my first 10k race, organised by Relish Running Races and held at Cheddar Gorge. After some quite exciting rain overnight, the track up to the top of the hill had become impassable to vehicles (the organisers had managed to slide their van back down the track in, what I can only imagine must have been, an exhilarating manner when attempting to drive up to the start point earlier that morning). Understandably, the decision was quickly made that sending hundreds of cars up the track was quite probably a bad idea and marshals were dispatched to the entrance to the gorge to direct us runners to alternative car parks. It just so happened that these were at the bottom of the gorge. And the starting line was at the top.
Let us examine the definition of the word “gorge” for a minute:
gorgenouna narrow valley between hills or mountains, typically with steep rocky walls and a stream running through it.
In other words, between the car and the start of the race there was a really big hill.
I fully support the decision to rethink the parking arrangements; getting people safely to and from the event has to be one of the most important considerations of putting on an event like this. And the hike from the bottom of the gorge to the top added a pretty energetic warm up to my morning. I just really wish I hadn’t left some of my gear in the car (I really hadn’t appreciated how big a hill lay between where we parked and where registration was and, by the time I had, it was too late to turn back or I may have missed registration). By the time we lined up at the start of the race I had hiked up the hill, (sort of) ran back down the hill and then hiked back up the hill again. As I say, a pretty decent warm up.
But, as is pretty much always the way, the rewards for huffing and puffing up a really big hill are fantastic views, and Cheddar Gorge was no exception. From our vantage point we could look out across the Mendip hills and the flat farming land of Somerset. Just behind us the grassy field just stopped and then plunged vertically down into the gorge. If I squinted, I think I could see the car. The village of Cheddar lies at the mouth of the gorge and has a long history, dating back to Roman times. The reason that most people have heard of Cheddar, however, is probably not for the history or even the gorge and caves; it’s for the cheese.
Wikipedia tells me that cheddar accounts for just over half of the UK’s annual cheese market, worth some £1.9 billion a year. That’s crackers, but there is obviously a very mature market out there for cheese, and what’s good for the cheese industry has to be gouda for the wider economy. Okay, I’ll stop it now.
Back in the day (I’m a little hazy on which day that was), the caves of Cheddar Gorge offered the perfect conditions for maturing the cheese and led to the area becoming famous for this particular cheese. One company (the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company) still use the caves to mature their Cave-Aged Cheddar.
But let us step out of the caves and return to the top of the hills surrounding the gorge, where a group of eager runners are waiting to run a race. Or, to be more accurate, several races: Relish offered a 5k, 10k, half marathon and a marathon option. My preparation for this 10k had not been the best but the generous warm up had loosened me up and I felt pretty good on the starting line. The first kilometre or so took us further uphill before levelling out for a very pleasant run across fields with the gorge off to our right. We descended through trees and passed the first water station. I’ve never had to contend with a water station before and I was surprised to learn that it’s actually quite difficult to drink from a plastic cup whilst running. After throwing most of it over my face, I got my head down again (it helped the excess water run off) and concentrated on my running.
We were on an out-and-back leg through Velvet Bottom which, whilst sounding like something from Noel’s House Party (if you were born after 1995 then you may have to Google it), is actually a pretty valley with waves of grasses dancing in the breeze beside us as we ran. After the return leg along the valley floor we passed the drinks station again and, this time, I opted for a jaffa cake: much easier to consume on the move. I’m not sure I really needed it, but it seemed rude to run past without taking something.
The extra sugar was probably not a bad idea as it turned out. Not long after the 7k marker we started to ascend again. Steeply. Up a section of the course known as “Hell Steps”. I managed to run up the steps and the path soon flattened out once more before leading to a wall we had to scramble over. “That wasn’t too bad” I thought, as I turned a corner to be faced with… a hell of a lot more steps. “Oh arse!”
I did not manage to run up many of these before being reduced to a panting quick walk. Which then turned into a panting not-so-quick walk. At the very top of the steps the 8k marker came into view and I finally managed to start running again. The final two kilometres took us further uphill on an undulating path with the gorge now a great gash in the ground away to our left. We completed a loop of the starting area, hopping over a stile and across a wall, before circling around for the final push to the finish line. I had refrained from looking at my watch too often (once at half-way – 28:30ish – and once at around 9k) but I had a quick glance as I made my turn towards the end of the race. I was going to have to push it if I wanted a sub-60 minute time.
I pushed it, but the hill pushed back and I finally made it across the line in 1:01:10, so just over the hour. Or, to look at it another way, 22 in binary.
For my first 10k, I can’t say that I was disappointed with the outcome. I would have liked to have run the whole distance but those steps really were hellish (spare a thought for the longer distances as well; the marathon route saw them running up that steep hill we all walked up on our way to registration). I thought that, once again, the Relish organisation was superb, particularly with the extra challenges they faced with the parking for the event. Not only that: this time, unlike the Relish 5k I completed earlier this year, running the 10k distance meant that I was entitled to one of the event-specific finishers’ medals that Relish provide.
And after all, that’s what it’s all about. Isn’t it?