I’ve never done any kind of obstacle course race, but I do love my trail running and have also tried out a few fell runs this year so I thought Hellrunner would be a nice mix of the two. The northern version in Delamere Forest, Cheshire – Hell Up North – bills itself as the toughest half marathon in the UK and my limited research into it seemed to suggest it was a challenging trail run where runners encounter natural obstacles such as mud, hills, bogs and a lake. If I’m quite honest, I thought the marketing about it being hellish was overhyped – I’ve worked in marketing and copywriting myself for a long time! – so I took reference to Lucifer’s Lido, the Bog of Doom and the Hills of Hell with a pinch of salt.
I’ll admit the photographs and videos the organisers posted in the few weeks preceding the event did get me feeling a bit nervous about the obstacles I would encounter, but I thought it would simply be good training for the cross country season which is just starting.
The start was well organised with easy, free car parking, and an athletes’ village with a changing tent, baggage, food and drink, samples from sponsors Clif Bar and gait analysis from Brooks. I had opted for Wave 1, anticipating that I could avoid most queues for obstacles setting off first, and a rather geriatric looking masked Lucifer on stilts set us off on the start line with red smoke.
The first mile was immediately up to the top of Old Pale hill (176m) but after that the next 5 miles or so were like a really nice trail run along paths and weaving in and out through the forest. There was one steep valley to descend into followed immediately by a climb up the other side, with a very small queue as people took it tentatively down the steep dusty slope. The climb back up was really steep and involved digging fingers into the dirt and grabbing hold of tree roots to get some grip. I remember thinking to myself that this section was tame, apart from a section where we had to cross a lake basically balancing on tree branches and sticks. The arrow suggested that we go straight the middle of it but I followed the pack and managed to keep everything except my left foot dry. I kept consciously scolding myself for skirting around the edge of puddles and muddy sections instead of going straight through them, and as we crossed the road through the forest into the second section I was still very clean as I smiled for the first camera man. Oh how the irony of my mud avoidance will come back to bite me later on.
There was a water stop at around 5.5/6 miles. I didn’t carry any tech on this run for obvious reasons so it was impossible for me to tell what distance obstacles were at, and the organisers intentionally do not display distance markers to make it more of a mental challenge. After a drink, the obstacles started and we descended a hill straight into a deep bog. There was no way around and it was around 30m wide and waist to chest deep. There was a queue to cross via the right hand side of it, but our group splashed straight in and made two new crossings. I surprised myself by actually getting straight in, and it was surprisingly warm but the smell was disgusting! Sulphurous, gloopy mud. I got a bit hysterical with laughter at this point because I had made such an effort to keep myself clean for the past hour and now I looked and smelled like a bog creature. Thanks to the chap who lent me a helping hand as I tripped over a tree root in there and nearly went face first into it. I hauled myself out the other side and carried on running. From here on in my memory is a bit blurred, but I remember there being lots of thick deep mud – I’m talking knee deep if you stepped in the wrong bit, and ankle to shin deep if you went around the edge. I nearly lost my shoes a few times. There were stream crossings too but for the most part it was very runnable.
And then came the hills of hells. The route basically took us to the side of a very steep, almost vertical, banking and made us run down and climb up several times. I felt a little like Sisyphus, the Greek guy of legend who got punished by being made to eternally roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down and have to start again. At this point I had no idea how far I had run – I guessed about 8.5/9 miles – and absolutely no clue how long I had been out for – it felt like eternity – and I was totally out of fuel. At the top of that last hill I bonked, and remember shouting ‘I need sugar!’ to which a woman just behind me miraculously produced a gel out of her waist pack and offered it to me. Sweet, sweet nectar. Thank you! I shared it with a friend who was also in a similar fuel-depleted state and I internally cursed myself for not having brought any fuel with me. It didn’t even occur to me as I can quite happily run a half marathon in training usually carrying no food or water, but this was different.
The marshall at the top of the hill assured us that the next water station was about 2 miles away so on we walked/ran, to be faced with my biggest nemesis, Lucifer’s Lido: the lake crossing. Now those who know me, know I chickened out of an open water triathlon last year because it involved an 800m swim in a lake. I can swim, but am not confident, and as we waded into the cold water here, my stomach was churning. The lifeguard from Cheshire Search and Rescue, who was standing at the water’s edge, asked: “Are there any non swimmers here, because the water level is much higher than usual?” and I immediately started to panic. I surveyed the situation. I couldn’t see the other side of the lake. There was a clear route through it, and those people I could see in it looked to be wading through it about chest deep in the water, but there were many trees growing out of the water, and it could have been my imagination but it looked foggy and misty. Was I in my worst nightmare?
I was snapped out of my hellish hallucination by a woman in front of me who offered us (my husband, friend and me) a cola bottle which we happily accepted. I took a deep breath and waded in. It was cold. Icy cold. Knee deep. Many tree roots to trip over and bruise your shins. Then my husband fell forward with a huge splash. “Careful! There’s a big drop there,” he warned. He was now chest deep. I let myself carefully fall forward into the dip, treading water, and the cold on my chest immediately took my breath away. I panicked. Grabbed hold of Dan’s hand. Grabbed a tree root I could see out of the water. Shouted a lot of swear words. (Apologies to fellow waders!) The presence of the search and rescue chaps with their lifeboats was however very reassuring – I think there were 4 of them positioned across the lake, and I asked one how far it was. “About 200 metres of deep water,” he reassured me, so I composed myself and decided to swim across rather than risk tripping and drowning in the icy hell. Dare I say I actually enjoyed the brief rest and the icy chill on my legs? Then I stood up, smiled for the camera man, and ran out of the other side to warm up again.
I was still out of fuel and was walk/running, I just had no energy. I kept thinking it was interminable. I had lost all sense of time and direction. My legs didn’t want to run at all and I was just trying to conserve every ounce of energy I had left. I told my husband to stop talking to me because it was using energy for me to even listen. I thought I was hallucinating at one point as I could see black shapes and shadows floating in front of my eyes. Then I heard dance music. And there appeared an angel, resplendent in a white tutu and a halo, proffering shot blocks. Was I in heaven? It appeared I was. I took two shot blocks and a bottle of water, ran through a disco tent, waved at an angel on the decks, and composed myself for the last few miles. There were more bogs, more hills, more trees and logs to clamber over, more streams to wade through, and then finally we crossed the road again and I could hear music from the drummers in the athlete village. Nearly home. Nearly. Just the small matter of the Bog of Doom to get through.
This section was actually fun as it was around half a mile from the finish, if that. The bog was around waist deep and nowhere near as smelly as some of the others we had encountered, but the water was very muddy and concealed many tree roots under the surface attempting to trip you up, bruise and scrape your legs so it was very slow progress. There were a lot of spectators here, marvelling at the brown, stinking, unrecognisable creatures wading past and then with the helping hand of the last marshall who hauled us out, we were through and we simply had to run around the final field to the finish line. Three of us, Danny, Will and I, crossed hand in hand after 3 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds. I gasped as I saw the time and realised how long it has actually taken – no wonder I had completely hit a wall! – but we had been through hell and made it to heaven and back again.
The medal and the goody bag were top quality, and the technical t-shirt was great too. The charity hose down by the Fire Service was also very cold but welcome!
All in all a great race, but a lot more challenging than I was expecting. It was very well signposted, and my only gripe was that two water stations wasn’t enough. Ideally I would have liked one around 4 miles, 8 miles and 11 miles. A great challenge, and I feel I’ve learned a lot about myself this weekend. I also promise to never skirt around the edges of a muddy puddle again. The bogs have changed me.
I wore Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes for this race which performed excellently – really light, grippy, and good to feel the ground beneath your feet.
Distance 13.1 miles (approx. – I wore no tech remember but one of my teammates assures me it was 21km)
Completed in 3:52:49
146th lady out of 346
802nd overall out of 1202 finishers