Saturday 21st June 2014
Extract from Jane Austen's Emma:
'Mr Knightley, I do behold an astonishing sight. There are a hundred young men and ladies in a state of undress running up the hill towards us.'
'Why Miss Woodhouse, you are quite correct, for today is the 6th edition of the Picnic Marathon, named after our excursion on this very hill.'
'The Picnic Marathon! It sounds so delightful - it conjures images of rolling fields, dancing butterflies and all the beauty of nature.'
'Indeed - but never was an event named with such inconstancy! We may witness a display of enthusiasm now, but I fear their youthful fire may be all but extinguished by the time we see them again, for they have twenty six miles and six thousand feet of climbs to endure between now and then.'
'Six thousand! That's mental!'
Named after the day-out-gone-a-bit-wrong from the novel, the Picnic is one of those many events that claim to be the 'Toughest in Britain', and while initially cynical, now I'm not sure I can think of even a close rival.
The course is essentially a 6.5 mile strip along the picture-postcard slopes of Box Hill containing 5 significant climbs and descents. It's a double out-and-back, setting off at 2pm on the longest day to ensure we get the full benefit of the Earth's tilt. For the full marathon, that's 20 climbs, 6 of them steep enough to need steps.
The club was well represented, with Hamish Pritchard joining me for this C&C bi-ennial hill training session. The extra club competition kept me honest, as every time I turned around at the bottom of one of the many out-and-back/down-and-up sections there he was, bounding down the slope showing off the skills that took him to an impressive 4th in this event in 2007. At the 6.5 mile (quarter-way) turn point, getting progressively steeper towards a road of unforgiving traffic, another runner stopped to give him a round of applause as he flew by. I was maybe 5 mins ahead of him by halfway, but by 3/4 the gap was down to 3 mins again, so it came no surprise when he caught me shambling along at the end of climb 19 before plunging down into the abyss on our final visit to the stepping stones across the river deep down in the Mole Valley.
Having dragged my sorry behind back up the 275 steps for the 4th and last time, I saw him maybe only 40 seconds ahead at the start of the final half-mile descent to the finish line. OK, goggles on, I'm going in, let's see what this old wreck can do. Even more damage as it happens, as downhill sprints seriously hurt after 5 hours on your feet. I closed the gap until my well-meaning support crew called 'Come on Neil' and suddenly the gap stopped closing and my dastardly plan to pass him 5m before the line was foiled. Curses - I trailed in 8s adrift before collapsing to the ground dry retching while my daughter enthusiastically threw cups of cold water over my head. Lovely.
This was a really special event, but one requiring specialist training - you can't just tack this one on to the end of a spring marathon campaign by adding a couple of hill training sessions (I can't even claim 'a few') and hoping for the best. That would be just stupid, and a sure route to a positive split of 45 mins or worse ... but in a race with a 34% dropout rate, finishing at all can be taken as some degree of success. And I'm sure that once my tendons reattach I'll be a hill-running force to be reckoned with, oh yes.
Definitely one for the bucket list - next edition 2016. Enough time to forget the last few days of agony...