It’s been a while since I did a race report, mainly because it’s been a while since I did a race, so here goes…
Sunday 15th September, and time for the annual Cransley Hospice Road Race, an event held in the peaceful village of Cranford, Northants with proceeds going to the eponymous hospice. Cransley Hospice provides palliative care for people with life-limiting illness in the North Northants region, and relies on charitable donations in order to keep providing this valuable service; so there’s no denying that it’s a worthwhile cause, and certainly one close to the hearts of many people in my neck of the woods.
My entry to this race was a bit of a last minute decision, largely due to the fact that I didn’t realise it existed until just a few days earlier. The event is split into three races; a kids fun run to begin with, followed by 10k and half marathon, with the latter two running simultaneously.
I’ve lived down the road from Cranford all my life, and it’s your typical sleepy English village with a relatively high ducks-per-capita rating. Based on this, along with the fact that the race has the word “hospice” in the title, I was expecting something quite sedate and low-key as I made my way to register at the village hall. I was anticipating a couple of hundred runners at most, and fully expected the race to be started by the local vicar and his trusty tin whistle. I’d already heard that they didn’t have chip timing, so I assumed that after you finished you just jotted a rough estimate of your finish time on the back of an owl and left it with Mrs Goodcake from number thirty-two. To be honest, this wasn’t a bad thing; all my races of late have been quite large-scale, and I was looking forward to trying something a bit smaller and more intimate.
So then, I was quite surprised to be met on my arrival by a sea of cars and all the trappings of a big race, including the obligatory inflatable finish-line archway* and timing screen. Mrs Goodcake was nowhere to be seen.
While queuing to register, I bumped into an old friend, Chas**, who had moved to America a few years ago but was back home for a visit. Chas told me that he was a bit jet-lagged and hadn’t really done any running in years, but had been talked into entering the race by his family, just for a bit of fun. He’d even had to go out and buy some running shoes at the last minute. Chas is a lovely bloke, chirpiness personified, and under normal circumstances I would have suggested we run it together to have a bit of a chat and a laugh. But although I’ll never remotely resemble a proper racing snake, I was hoping for a PB in this race, and didn’t want to spoil Chris’ enjoyment by dragging him into my world of obsessive clock-watching, anti-chafing strategies and negative splits.
Speaking of racing snakes, there was a hefty club-runner presence at this event***, and there were vests as far as the eye could see. If you’ve seen the classic 1980s movie “The Warriors” you’ll remember the bit at the beginning where all the gangs are gathered together, each group unified by their distinct outfits and matching colour scheme. Well this was a lot like that, except you’d have to substitute the bandanas and denim jackets for Garmins and brightly coloured vests, and the atmosphere of thinly-veiled hostility for one of cheerful bonhomie***. And nobody was holding nunchuks. And we weren’t in New York.
On second thoughts it was nothing like the classic 1980’s movie “The Warriors”.
So anyway, before long the race was underway. My only gripe (and it’s only a small one) about the whole event was that this had the worst bottlenecking I’ve ever seen. I get the feeling that the route hasn’t changed much since the event first started (it’s now on its 12th year), and was quite narrow to begin with. As a reault, 600(ish) runners were pretty much shoulder-to-shoulder for the first mile before the pack started to properly spread out. This would have been more of a problem had it not been for the cheerfully relaxed atmosphere that permeated the whole race; and rather than frustration, the first mile was filled with laughs and banter.
As I said earlier, I’ve lived down the road from Cranford all my life, and one thing that’s always struck me about the place is the complete lack of…
…Nyaaaarghhh!!! Hills!!! Where the bloody hell did they come from? Throughout the entire first half of the race my thighs were demanding to know why I hadn’t paid a bit more attention to the terrain all these years. When I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer they proceeded to beat me up from within. With sticks.
But despite this I somehow managed to maintain a half-decent (by my standards) pace. I was managing to stay under 9 min/miles which, if I could keep it up, meant I was on track to beat my personal best of 56:10. It was hard work, in a way I can’t explain. By which I mean that I wasn’t out of breath, my legs didn’t feel tired, but I just couldn’t muster that extra little bit of energy to make the whole experience flow. For a while, I maintained my pace by mentally repeating a mantra one of my friends uses: “Relentless Forward Progress”. But at the 7km mark I saw something that spurred me on more than a thousand mantras written in the combined sweat of the Dalai Lama and Chuck Norris…
I saw that the bloke 20ft in front of me was wearing Lonsdale generic fashion trainers.
Now, I’m by no means a shoe snob, but there was no bloody way I was going to finish behind someone wearing those damned things. That would be like being beaten by somebody in espadrilles*****. It wasn’t the shoes themselves; it was what they symbolised: “10K? How far’s that then? Never mind, I’ll have a crack at it. I drank three litres of absinthe last night and I haven’t run since I was seven. Oh, and I plan on stopping for a crafty fag and a sausage roll every five minutes, but I reckon I’ll have a go, just for a laugh”. I’ve finished behind people like that since the day I started running, and I’m sure it’ll happen again and again in the future – it’s just the kind of runner I am. But not this time.
I sped past my oblivious (and probably lovely) nemesis and spent the next couple of kilometres settling into a happy rhythm. For most of that time I had another runner directly behind me, shadowing my every move, overtaking whenever I overtook. Such was his dogged pursuit that I knew that the very last moments of the race would see us both kicking at the same time and racing each other to cross the line first. At an amateur level this is actually a very positive thing – on the surface it’s a fight to get (for example) 2751st place rather than 2752nd, but on a deeper level it’s also a fantastic way of motivating you to really dig deep and give your absolute all during those final seconds, when every other molecule of your being is screaming “you can ease off now, the end’s in sight”. As an added bonus, my sort-of-nemesis was wearing the red and white striped vest of the Kettering Town Harriers, which meant that if he did beat me across the line, at least I’d be losing to a runner from my home town. Sure enough, as we made our way through the final kilometre, my nemesis drew level with me. We only just shared a few seconds of slightly-out-of-breath banter while navigating a bend when, without warning, the runner just a few feet in front of us went over like a freshly tasered cow, his legs buckling underneath him like the legs of a… well, I’ve just given you a perfectly good simile, you’re not getting another one. Greg and I (I don’t know his name, so now he’s Greg) rushed forward and lifted the stricken runner to the side of the road, dodging the procession of sweaty racers who sped around the corner after us. It’s fair to say that our new friend was not in the happiest of places, but it didn’t take two of us to look after him, so I nodded for Greg (Yep, still Greg) to carry on. I walked with the fallen chap for a bit (let’s call him Bernard, while we’re on a roll of name-making-upness), trying to establish whether he wanted to carry on or just call it a day. He managed to coax himself into a slow jog, but in hindsight I probably didn’t help much. In Bernard’s semi-conscious exhaustion, my comment of “It’s almost over. you’re nearly there; five more minutes and all of this’ll just be a fond memory” probably filtered into a slightly more sinister “It’s over. You’re nearly just a fond memory”. Luckily for me, someone else took that opportunity to step in and take over. I’d have assumed he was a marshal, although he was dressed like a runner (albeit without a race number). In hindsight I suppose he could have just been a sporty mugger.
As it turns out, the decision to stop and help this fellow runner had been an important one for me. It felt like, faced with a moral dilemma that could easily see me lose a couple of minutes from my finish time, I’d made peace with something I’ve known all along – the fact that I’ll never be a competitive runner. For me, it’s all about the spirit of running; the humanity and the moments of quiet beauty. Once Bernard was in safe (or possibly muggy) hands, I felt renewed by the couple of minutes of rest, which could only mean one thing… sprint finish 😉
The final leg of the race was quite a tricky one, with the terrain suddenly switching from open road to a series of grassy taped-off twists and turns. As I weaved my way through it, my legs were still flailing underneath me at breakneck speed, with my lungs lagging ten feet behind. I threw myself across the finishing line as “53:10” flashed up on the big clock. Not only had I played the good Samaritan, but I’d somehow obliterated my PB at the same time.
I picked up my medal, but was slightly disappointed that there were no little old ladies handing out victoria sponge at the finish line.
This is a fantastic event, and certainly one that I’ll be entering for years to come, for the simple fact that it neatly combines the bells and whistles of a big race with the heart and soul of a village fun run. To qualify that last comment I’d like to point out that, while the finish line was lacking sponge cake, it did have a tombola stall.
(Ooh, never had an epilogue before. Exciting!)
I bumped into Chas again later that day, and asked how he’d done. “Yeah, it was okay actually” he replied, and I suddenly knew what was coming next…
“Did it in just under 46 minutes. Is that good?”
I didn’t check at the time, but I think he might have been wearing Lonsdale generic fashion trainers.
* Here’s a thought, race organisers… If you’re going to shell out for an inflatable, why not just go the whole hog and hire a bouncy castle instead. Arches are booooring, and everyone knows that what us runners really want at the end of a gruelling race is to throw ourselves onto a gigantic boingy My Little Pony Fun-Fortress™. ** I tend not to use people’s real names on this blog, purely because that seems to be the done thing in the world of writing. So Chas isn’t his real name. His real name’s Chris. *** …by which I mean there were a lot of club runners. Not a presence of hefty club runners. **** …and possibly a little bit of heavily-veiled hostility. You can never be sure. ***** Which has happened to me, incidentally.