#12 / 12 Headley Heath Trail Marathon,
12 December (12/12) 2020 05:31:05

The idea

Initially I wasn’t too sure what to do for the last one. I knew it had to be a trail marathon and I wanted to keep it local. I’ve become a bit spoiled during lockdowns by starting and finishing from home quite a bit – almost feels a bit lazy 🙂

In looking for organised events I discovered the NHS “Thank You” Rainbow Challenge virtual event – this seemed a pretty apt event to take part in given the year we’ve had and it allowed me to add a small contribution to this amazing service.

Then one of the lads from my club, Tadworth Athletic Club (TAC), suggested he’d like to join for some of it – wow that sounded cool. So far I’d run everything solo besides the virtual London run where I had great support from Tom who, with incredible patience, was there while I dragged myself around for arguably my worst run. I’m comfortable with solo efforts and actually enjoy the long outings on my own but I was thrilled that possibly one or two TAC friends might show up.

As soon as I paid any attention to the calendar it was just clear that there could only be 1 date for the run – 12/12 of course!!

A plan formed up

With the possibility of friends joining I mapped out a course comprising 3 loops based at a nearby National Trust property – Headley Heath. I’ve come to enjoy looping courses, especially when self-supporting, as you can leave provisions and backup gear at a central location. In this case it was also handy to allow friends to drop in and connect with the loops. After sharing the idea there were a few takers – it was shaping up for a great finale!

Each of the 3 loops are made up of sections which I run regularly and are all made up of trails very familiar to anyone who runs off-road in my area.

I was also delighted that Vicky was going to join too and, with Cally, provide support as well as take her usual amazing photos.

Loop 1 – Box Hill

It was going to be a 07:30 start as I wanted to get this done before eating into mid/late afternoon.

I was thrilled to see Ian and Akshay arrive in the parking lot and then received a text from Mark to confirm that he too would be joining in the early fun.

Without too much faffing around we set off just as it was light enough to see without a head torch. There is a real buzz when setting off for a ‘race’ especially something like this one. Having Vicky there popping pics with the flash illuminating the area created a hint of red carpet treatment and it was a delight to set off for that first loop with the 3 lads.

I had very modest ambitions regarding the pace and in the back of my mind were 2 thoughts:

  • I hope the guys push me a bit
  • I hope the guys don’t push too hard

It’s easy to get a bit lazy when you’re on your own so having the company promised a slightly quicker pace and I was really looking forward to this. As it turned out the guys were really tuned into not pushing me too hard and let me get into a good rhythm.

The first 4.5 miles (7.2km) was largely downhill ending up at the foot of Box Hill, a nice, gentle intro. As we dropped off the trail to make a road crossing Vix and Cally popped out to snap a few pics and then we were off making our way towards the “donkey track”. This is a flint pebbled ridge ascending Box Hill and is probably one of the more forgiving routes up this iconic landmark and is also the route for the annual TAC “murder mile” dash.

I had passed this way two weeks previously at the back end of my #11 50k. It was a much more sedate pace then, taking me 14:27 to complete the Strava segment while on this day I managed it in 9:29 (a minute slower than my 8:29 PB). I did not want to overcook on this, the first big hill.

The view spot atop Box Hill

At the top is the panoramic viewpoint and it was here that we joined the North Downs way for a short spell. There was a small sting in the tail on this loop with a nasty uphill taking us back towards Headley. It was here on a tricky short-cut traverse that Ian took a slide and landed on his phone, cracking the screen making it almost unusable. He did, however, manage to get a call in to his wife to let her know he would be continuing on to loop 2! Little did she know.

As we re-entered Headley Heath it was great to have Mark on hand to give us some of the local history – it was used by Canadian soldiers in WWII as a training ground where they prepared for the D-Day landings, amongst other things. The conversations (and odd history lesson) were a brilliant way to pass the time and the miles just flew by, it was an excellent start.

I knew it was going to be generally muddy as I’d recce’d loops 1 and 2 the previous weekend but it seemed that in the intervening week the mud gods had a party and barfed all over the place. The return stretch to the car park was a mile or so of ankle-deep, shoe-sucking sludge which was already becoming familiar and would continue for much of the route.

Loop 2 – Stane Street

Loop 1 was the shortest of the three loops at 7.6 mi (12.2 km) and was a comfortable warm-up. Both Ian and Akshay decided to continue on to loop 2 – good lads!! We said our farewells to Mark, topped up supplies and headed back out.

The first part of this loop took us through rolling farmlands before dropping down under the M25 motorway. Then there was a long drag up towards Walton-on-the-Hill followed by a downhill on “Sheep walk” to Epsom Downs and Langley Vale.

There is a long straight section which we joined at Langley Vale called Stane Street which is actually an old Roman road dating back to 50 AD. It connected to a military and naval supply base at Chichester – how cool is that!

Dan and Steve were on their way to join in here – brilliant!! After doubling back for a short bit we picked up Dan who then went back to find Steve. We took it slow for a spell with intermittent walks as we passed through Langley Vale farm to allow them to catch up. They eventually picked us up just after we had crossed back over the M25 and it was awesome to now have a ‘pack’ of 5 plus Jack, Steve’s dog (Border Colley, I think).

The joy of running together…

Once again the miles just flew by and it was not long before we were back in the car park, 16 miles (26km) down, just 10 more to go!

Loop 3 – back on the NDW

At some point towards the end of loop 2 Akshay mentioned he was thinking about continuing on to loop 3!! Imagine that. Then as we were collecting ourselves to head back out Ian said “do you mind if I join for loop 3 too?” – what was he going to tell his wife!!. Both Ian and Akshay were on for the full monty. Wow, incredible.

If you run you’ll know that a marathon is something that, in addition to training, you need to get your head right for. Going for a long run and then on the spur of the moment adding another ‘long run’  is very hard. You gear your mind to the initial distance and going beyond that is really tough. For example, at the end of a marathon there is no way I can go out and do another one but if the goal is 100km (2.5 marathons) or 100miles (4 marathons) you can somehow do it because you calibrate for it.

So, it was no mean feat to just decide to keep going. Sure, they were both fitter and faster than me so my pace was somewhat forgiving but I can’t emphasise enough what a huge achievement this was – they have my utmost respect for this. Also, it was just brilliant to have their company for the whole show 🙂

We were also joined by Warren for the start of 3 and heard that Simon (who had other morning commitments) would be able to join at some point along the way.

The route for the final loop takes in a section of the North Downs Way (NDW) which I just love to run. It has played part in the May 100km, the June Beer Ultra 50km, the July NDW trail Marathon and of course the August 100mile NDW – so it was a fitting close to the campaign.

It was essentially an out-and-back with the ‘out’ section running below the Reigate hill complex and the return tracing a path across the top ridge after the final ascent in Gatton Park.

We said farewell to Steve then Dan a short way into loop 3 – great to have seen them and be able to share the run.

There was a lot of really sticky and slippery mud as we made our way towards the final hill. It was here that a great surprise was in store. Coming out of Pilgrims way on to a connecting road we were met with loud cheers befitting any big city marathon! Mark, Georgina and their two boys Edward and Hugh along with Vicky and Cally were giving much needed encouragement. This was mile 21 and, while the end was in sight the legs were now complaining and energy was waning.

A most welcome cheer from Mark, Georgina, Edward, Hugh and Cally!! 

It was such a boost to see them and the cheer was appreciated by us all. Mark and George are part of a trio of couples who have done “Come Dine with Me” for the past five years. This year has of course been cancelled due to COVID so it was just brilliant to see them again – it’s a small thing but it went a long way. It really brought home how weird it has been to not be able to do those simple things we are accustomed to. Kudos for getting out on your Saturday morning to support what is very much not a spectator sport – thanks guys!!!

Simon picked us up on the final hill up to Junction 8 and I really felt for both him and Warren – they were both very fresh and also class runners, way out of my league and joining when my pace was at an absolute crawl.

In the final mile we were heading through a grassy field up a very slight incline and I was walking. I said to Simon “I really should be running this” but what the hell – been a long year.

The Finish

I did eventually manage to break into a trot to cover the last bit (salvaging a bit of dignity). We broke cover into the car park and everyone was clapping and cheering – amazing. I really could not think of a better way to round off the 12 in 12 surrounded by friends and fellow runners – it was both a joy and very humbling.

All that remained was to crack a beer and pop some bubbly. Once again Mark and George were on hand to be able to share the moment.

Thank you so much to Akshay, Ian, Mark, Dan, Steve (and Jack), Warren and Simon for coming out and making this truly memorable. Ian and Akshay – just WOW – a pair of accidental marathons. Afterwards, Simon asked which was the most memorable run and I answered that it was probably the Scafell Pike adventure or the NDW 100 miler but now that I’ve had some time and distance I think it may well be this final episode. To be able to share the experience multiplies it and I’ll never forget this one…

Thanks once gain to Vicky too – it’s been such a treat to have her along for the ride this year and she has created a wonderful set of memories captured by her brilliant photos. Her pics from other events are also online here.

Thanks also to Cally – she has been an amazing support all year and it has been so good to share it with her. In fact, next year we are doing a his & hers 12 in 12 where we plan to take a weekend away every month in 2021 based around a run of 10 – 12 miles. It’s a game the whole family can play 😀

What does it all mean?

A few short years ago if you’d have described this challenge to me I would have just said “Nuts!!”. I get it. From the outside that’s probably how it looks. Five years ago I set out to run a marathon and here I am looking back on this most epic year. I’m an average runner. Very average. That’s not some kind of humble brag and I’m totally OK with that.

I talk about how much running has given me and I think it is encapsulated in this moment. Finishing this challenge.

It is made up of a journey on which I am still near the beginning. It contains failures and injuries. It contains a series of many small incremental gains. It is fuelled by the discovery of what my own body can do and how being fit makes everything better. It’s about getting up, getting out and getting it done. It’s a long game but it’s as simple as putting on some shoes and going outside. It’s an adventure that has taken me to places afar and yet uncovered hidden paths right on my doorstep. It is punctuated by moments of pain and despair as well as pinnacles of of joy and ecstasy.

This is what running means to me. I hope as many people as possible come to find this ‘thing’ because it is just not possible to truly share it. You have to discover it for yourself.




Categories: Race Report