Monday, 2 January 2012
AND so this morning it's off to The Plough, a rather handsome pub midway between Billericay and Brentwood. The TV cast of 'The Only Way is Essex' live around here I am told, but there's not too many fake tans and botox knocking around this early on a cold Bank Holiday morning, that's for sure. Just a few pale, skinny runners.
Olympic year 2012 is less than 48 hours old and it’s bloody cold. I queue up in the back bar of the pub with my £4 offering. A slightly flustered-looking woman called Evelyn takes the cash, asks for my name and club, and hands over an A4 sheet of instructions in return. She points me towards a chap called Ken, who is clutching a stopwatch and busy ushering people back out into the cold and off down the road.
No, as you might have guessed by now, we’re not here to toast the new year, or even to drink at all. Today’s task for a handful of Tiptree Road Runners (TRR) is to complete the 'Plough Plod', a trail race put on by the amusingly-named local club Thrift Green Trotters. For hardcore runners there is a 13-mile route, and for those with a hangover or more modest expectations, there is a cheeky little seven-miler.
Rumours are rife the routes have been made deliberately confusing, with circular sections where runners will pass others going the opposite way. Oh dear.
Some folk welcome the new year by listening to Big Ben and watching Boris Johnson’s fireworks, in these parts we mark the occasion by plodding through fields of cowshit in Essex. You have to understand it’s really all about the challenge of understanding someone else’s written instructions and hauling your weary butt through muddy fields, woods, farmyards, over stiles and footbridges and back to the pub in a respectable time.
You’d be surprised how popular such ventures are. Some of us shoot off grim-faced aiming to get the quickest possible finish time, others travel more slowly in chattering sociable groups, while others amble along gently, simply glad to be out of the house and exercising after the long holiday period. Some even take their four-legged friends with them. There is no pressure, no starting pistol, you simply have a quiet word with Ken and set off when you are ready. Your time out in the wilds will be recorded and probably published for the world to see, but if it’s embarrassingly slow you can always claim you got badly lost. In many cases this will be true anyway.
These low-key trail events have become immensely popular with the running clubs of Essex in recent years and today sees another good turnout, even though there is a clash of dates with a cross-country league race at Stebbing, that's the one notorious locally for its comical deep water hazards. The shortage of green and yellow running kits here at the Plough indicates that Colchester Harriers and Springfield Striders have opted for a splash at Stebbing.
At trail events, runners are usually left to their own devices, but as today we have to cross a major railway line, organisers TGT have taken the unusual step of providing 'Paul the Marshal' to ensure locomotives and athletes don’t come together in a bloody trackside mess. 'Andy the Course Designer' apparently left the country for a skiing holiday just before the race, leaving us lot at the mercy of his fiendish plan. He would probably have chuckled at the scene in one particular field, as runners span around in all directions, some seemingly knowing where they were going, others totally lost, and others simply following the group in front.
The secret to success in trail races is to NOT religiously follow the person in front. Not only could they be following different instructions to you, they could be going wrong anyway. Simon, our club coach at Tiptree Road Runners, is a strong and experienced runner, but appearances can be deceptive, and his record of getting lost in trail races is legendary and makes Mark Thatcher look like a top navigator.
Another member of TRR, who shall remain nameless, actually once confessed to enjoying the experience of going off course, as it made the whole day more challenging! If you see that runner up ahead, you therefore tend to ignore everything he does and concentrate all the harder on your instructions.
All in all, today's seven-mile outing goes pretty smoothly and most people get back to the 'TOWIE' pub only moderately bedraggled, and in a time which doesn't prompt their nearest-and-dearest to call the emergency services.
Some of us, however, have clearly done a little less mileage than we should have this morning. TRR's Wendy, for example, bravely comes clean later, admitting her position as joint-winner of the female race may have had something to do with a spell in which she and others got lost and (evidently) cut a corner without meaning to.
Nobody seems to care much about that sort of thing, though. For if you are the type who can't bear inaccuracies or ambiguities, then trail running probably isn't really for you anyway.