I’ll meet you by the cafe, he said.
Good idea, I thought.
It didn’t really occur to either of us until we were blundering around in the dark, peering at strangers and walking into benches, that there was a slight flaw in our plan. Inside the cafe? That would have been fine. Outside: not so easy in the dark.
So why was I wandering around in the pitch black outside the Ridge Cafe on top of Haldon hill?
Saturday night led us to the Haldon Forest Park, on a hill above Exeter, for the Haldon Night Run. They were offering 5k and 10k races – headtorches compulsory – through the forest and my friend and I, we thought, that sounds like a good idea. However, although the lights of Exeter twinkled down below us, up there on the hill there was precious little illumination to go by. And it’s considered rude to shine your torch into every approaching face. As I was reminded. Repeatedly.
We found each other eventually and limbered up. My friend’s torch was failing him so we had a humourous few minutes trying to see if he could run without any additional light. Turns out it was a bit tricky. It was somewhere around three degrees at this point so we alternated between stuffing ourselves inside the briefing room – never have I seen so many luminous tops all in one place – and hopping from foot-to-foot outside. It wouldn’t do to get too warm and stuffy before we started.
Most people had opted for the 10k; we were going for the 5. Irrespective of which race you were in, it was a mass start, so this led to the unedifying spectacle of me – a 5k runner – being left behind by the front-running 10k competitors. Hats off to them, they were speedy. (Then hat back on again quickly; remember, it’s only three degrees out.)
Although the start and finish are on top of Haldon hill, it drops away quite quickly on either side. Hence we had a nice little descent to begin with, followed by a bit of a prickly climb to regain all of that lost height. Despite all of the recent rain, the going was good and we didn’t struggle too badly with conditions underfoot. Back across the top of the hill and down the other side. And then down some more. And then down a really steep bit. This was fun in the dark. And by fun, I mean slightly terrifying.
Spat out at the bottom of the long descent, I managed to get a little too close to the left-hand side of the track and suddenly found myself teetering along on the edge of a muddy ditch. Arms flailing, I ran along looking rather like an overly-energetic ballerina. Who was on fire.
Avoiding the ditch, I began the gentler – but painful – climb back up the hill. Ahead of me, strung out like a set of Christmas lights, bobbed the headtorches of the faster runners. As the path took a sharp right turn, I spotted my first marshall (up to now, the route had been well-marked with poles and signs). “Ah-ha,” I thought. “This must mean something.” Sure enough, she was calling out the route for the 10k runners (off down another descent).
Hearing my plaintive cry for 5k directions, she stepped smartly to one side and pointed off of the main path into inky blackness. Really? In there? It was like that bit from Batman – the old TV series – where a bush moves out of the way to reveal the secret entrance to the batcave. It didn’t really look like a route, but oh well…
Suddenly, all was quiet. The bobbing string of Christmas lights had turned the corner and was now following its own path around the 10k course. I was on my own, struggling uphill, in the dark. I could hear panting: a wheezing, rasping sound that – were you to hear it deep in the darkened woods – would chill you to your bones, Luckily, it was only my own breathing, as I huffed and puffed my way back up the twisting turns towards the top.
Eventually a sign: 200 metres, and a turning onto the road and off of the earthy track. It was still uphill, pretty much to the finish, and then over the line to a smattering of applause from the assembled crowd (two time keepers and a bloke with a clipboard – it was three degrees, everyone else was in the cafe). My friend was already there, sucking in the cold night air as he recovered from his endeavours. “Well done,” he said. “You came second.” I panted for a bit. “Crikey,” I replied. “Where did you come?”
We were given a bottle of water and a nice wooden medal, and then we headed off to find some warmer clothes and a cup of coffee. Soon (yes, I do mean soon!) the 10k runners were arriving, as well as the rest of the 5k field, and the cafe began to fill up. Prizes given out and photographs taken (luckily, they don’t seem to have made it onto the internet yet), we headed back to our cars and drifted off into the night.
And somehow – largely, I suspect, as a result of my attempt to keep up with my fast friend – I also turned in a pretty decent 5k time. I had to check the results twice, just to be sure. Obviously I do all of my best running in the dark, in the woods, in close-to-zero temperatures. As for those 10k runners… well, some of them were impressively fast.
Well done to everyone who entered.