A couple of weeks ago I took part in Hope 24.
Having run 3 marathons I was offered the opportunity to take part in a different kind of running event. This was something way out of my comfort zone and would definitely be a challenge.
I have always run on road and never tried trail running (unless you count cross country as a schoolboy trying to avoid running through cow pats). I have also to date only run for a little over 3 hours in one go... and whenever I have run I have always pushed myself to run as fast as I can.
So what is Hope 24? Its a 24 hour trail running event through the picturesque grounds of Newnham Park in Plympton just outside of Plymouth. It has been going for 4 years raising money for charity (Hope for Children), hence the name Hope 24. This year it was also raising money for Dartmoor Rescue and volunteers were at the event to help marshall it.
So... what was the event like?
The campsite opened on the Friday night in a flat grassy field where the course was marked by tape and meandered through the field. I pitched my little tent near the transition area and start line. Many people were arriving to set up and as it was starting to rain and get a little drizzly I pitched as quick as I could before heading to the registration tent and grabbing my race pack.
There were 2 types of runners taking part, teams (of varying sizes from 2-8) and soloists. I had colleagues from work running as a team of 5 but for my sins was registered as a soloist. I picked up my pack which included an ankle tag that would register every time I crossed the timing mat on the start line and completed the 5 mile loop which made up the course. The idea was that you coudl leave the course at any time and for as long as you liked but were requested to enter the course again wherever you left it. Hence pitching the tent alongside the course so I could easily dive in for a quick change or to grab any gear, water or food. There were no prizes and it didn't matter if you completed 1 lap or 30... it was all about personal achievement and so was run on trust.
Living nearby I went home for a good nights sleep and also to take my son swimming the next morning before arriving back at the site on the Saturday about an hour before the start time of 12pm. The camp had grown considerably as 750 runners (including 350 soloists) and their families/friends had moved into the field.
15 minutes before start time the race dircetor held a safety briefing and the hundreds of runners gathered in the sunshine lining up for the start. At 12pm we started and I started a race slower than I had ever started before jogging along at a comfortable 10 minutes/mile.
The 5 mile lap consisted of a flat section around the camp site that was nestled at the bottom of a wooded valley followed by a gravel track that led to .... The Hill from Hell! A 1.5mile section that climbed around 120m in elevation. The first stretch was the steepest and I walked that section on every lap (often taking the opportunity to refuel from whatever I had grabbed out of the tent). Once it got less steep I jogged although there were a few occassions that I slipped back to a walk at times.
The hill led to some pine woods that was deep and dark with a reasonable track which meandered to a more open area of woodland and glades dubbed the bluebell forest due to the crapet of bluebells everywhere. It was stunning but also very technical as the track narrowed to a few inches making passing more tricky. It rose and fell with large boulders and tree roots sticking out ready to catch you unawares as you made your undulating descent back down to wards the valley floor.
Once out of the bluebell forest we were back to a flat gravel track where you could catch your breath and through the trees could get a glimpse of the camp site. It wasn't long before we were climbing again and once more another opportunity to walk, catch my breath and take on some much needed fluids.
The track led to a pretty little bridge across a stream that belied the treacherous slippy surfcae ready to catch you unawares. A boggy track that followed the cut of a mossy and treelined rockface skirted along the steep valley slope and gradually climbing before emerging out onto an open grass hill that led down to the campsite below where at the end of each lap fellow runners, running clubs and supporters cheered you along.
I worried that I would get tired of running a lapped course and I worried that I woudl spend most of that time running with no support as you get in a city centre road race. However, what I got was an amazing sense of cameradrie from all the other runners. I found myself running alongside people I had never met before and beacuse we were running slower coudl happily chat away. It turned ito a bit of a social outing, sometimes I woudl push on and at other times I woudl happily run alongside a new found friend. I saw a few people I recognised locally from running and work.
At the end of 5 laps and 25 miles I took a 20 minute break then went for another lap. I quickly realised I needed a bigger rest and so after lap 6 took a 2 hour rest break to eat some hot food and a couple of mugs of tea. I notice a golf ball sized lump at the base of my right shin which was a little sore but not too uncomfortable but I was glad for the rest.
The organisation of the event was brilliant with a couple of fantastic local food trucks and the most friendly atmosphere I have ever experienced at an event. I took the opportnuity to change into some warmer gear and threw on a lightweight jacket as it had started to drizzle as i began lap 7. This was new ground and I could soon tick off 35 mile ultra on my list of achievements!
Thats when the event turned.... within a few minutes of starting to climb "The Hill", the drizzle started to get heavier and by the end of the lap was a steady downpour. It didn't take long for hundreds of runners to quicly churn up the ground and in the technical sections those narrow tracks became rivers of mud with those rocks and roots becoming slippy and treacherous as the light faded. I had grabbed my headtorch as instructed (the organisers determined when it was required and would only allow night running with a head or hand torch). I adjusted the torch to light the 2-3m ahead of me and tried my best to pick my path without doing myself an injury.
By the end of my 9th lap (45 miles) I was cramping badly and soaked through. As I made my way through the camp towards the transition area it absolutely bucketed down and I quickly dived into my tent stripping off my wet gear and mopping up as best I could trying to avoid my small tent becoming a paddling pool. About 10 minutes later (10:30pm) I heard an announcement that they were closing the course for a while due to the conditions making the trecherous technical sections potentially dangerous.
At this point I totally wussed out having phoned my wife and taken up the offer of coming home for a hot shower and a warm bed. It was also a chance for me to clean off some of the mud from my trail shoes and try and dry them out a little (this was one hell of an event to break in a brand new pair of trail shoes but I'm glad I got them as road runners would have been a nightmare). Another hot shower in the morning and breakfast with my son gave me a huge boost as I made my way back on the course at around 8am. The course was reopened at 5:30am so I wasn't unhappy about my decision and had only missed 2 1/2 house of running time.
I managed 2 1/2 more laps of running before my legs finally quit on me. With 2 miles to go I started walking and realised I was on my last lap. I would finish around 11:30 (30 minutes before 12pm the end of the 24 hour event) and could continue on another lap but mentally and physically I was done.
It was at this point I bumped into Moose :) I tried a jog to run and chat with him but failed miserably. After a little catch up I let him run on and carried on my walk back to camp. I saved my energy and walked around the campsite before breaking into a sprint finish across the line... 12 laps and around 60 miles.
I had managed my first 35 mile ultra, my first double marathon, my first 24 hour event and my first trail run... al in one go!
The only donwside was that extra lap would have given me 100km which sounds like a really great number!
However, sitting here 2 weeks later I am nursing a sprained ankle (the golf ball sized lump was apparently the sign of a high ankle sprain, so it hadn't helped running a further 30 miles on it) and my left hamstring is so tight I am still limping.
It was hard... really hard. The rain was the wettest I have ever run in and I climbed over 2500m of elevation. But I did it with a smile on my face at all times as did the other 749 runners. It was such an incredible atmosphere which I could never hope to begin to describe except to say that it was the most increbible running experience and one I woud wholeheartedly recommend to all the other buzzers!
Hope 24 2018 is on May 19/20th......
see you there?
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