And so it came to pass that, on the 12th of August 2017, forty-odd runners gathered together in a patch of Woodland Trust land just outside London to do what seemed to them the right and decent thing to do on that day: run around in a circle for six hours.
The inaugural Merry Hill Challenge, our first ever event here at Merry Hill Running, was something of an ‘ensemble cast’ kind of race, where the stories from the front of the pack to the back all resonated with that particularly British flavour of endurance: wry smiles, grin-and-bear-it moments (or hours), and a no-frills, gritty approach to endurance. The phrase “Might as well keep going” was uttered more than once. As were the phrases “Give me that gong!” and “Give me that cake!”, for that matter.
Earlier in the day, a brief spell of rain as I was out marking the course made my heart sink a tad, as I was hopeful to have as few complications as possible during my first tenure as a race director. Thankfully, it passed no sooner than you could collapse to the ground and scream, “oh god oh NO not RAIN oh no no NO NO NO”, and the rest of the day saw gentle blue skies, patches of cloud, and a temperature that hovered comfortably around the 18ºC mark.
Once I had finished rescuing a directional sign from a group of fascinated horses and returned from marking the course, our first runners began to turn up. They were greeted by a half-assembled marquee, multiple bags of food lying strewn along the grass, and a bunch of hurried-looking volunteers trying to figure out what could be done to maintain the carefully crafted appearance of organisational prowess.
Like I said: first tenure.
Again, thankfully, the patch of hesitancy faded and we soon had assembled a glamorous, fully functional aid station, complete with a bunch of fruit, crisps, sweets, and homemade cakes. I had baked a vegan lime loaf myself (so much better than lemon), and fellow Vegan Runner Nazia had put together a positive feast of cupcakes. But all the treats were dwarfed by the A3 sheet of banana loaf baked by my other half Emily, which kept fifty runners happy for hours and still remained unfinished when the day came to a close.
Registrations flowed by without a hitch (except those two runners who got the wrong numbers), and before I knew it we were ready to go. After a quick briefing, 42 runners took off down the grass slope that descends into the woods and, seven months or so after the idea first popped into my head, the Merry Hill Challenge had finally begun!
The course was a 6.4km/3.9 mile undulating loop, entirely off-road, around both the Merry Hill and Haydon Hill areas in Bushey, which runners had 6 hours to complete as many times as they wished/could. Each loop contained about 100m/330 feet of elevation gain/loss, most of which was compressed into the second half, making for a rather taxing return journey every loop. From our vantage point, which gave us a nice long view of (quite literally) the home straight, we awaited the runners’ return.
First back to the starting gate, in less than 30 minutes, was local legend Steven Norris of Watford Joggers. Very much ‘in the zone’, Steven was in and out of the aid station quicker than you could say “Timothy Olson”, and his transition left us all holding on to our hats for fear of them being blown away.
Steven had managed to put an admirable gap between himself and the chase pack, who were not so much ‘hot on his heels’ as ‘a bit warm on his footprints’. In what might be called a more manageable six hour tempo (but still blisteringly fast for most mortals), runners William Mann, Derek Walker (Watford Harriers), Rafal Tkaczyk (Vegan Runners UK), and Max Holloway (Cambridge Triathlon Club) all arrived back to finish loop one a few minutes later, all within a few seconds of each other. Once more, each avoided too much time in camp, with speedy transitions that were a testament to their levels of experience. Jonathan Patterson (Tornado Endurance) came in on his own a few minutes behind them.
First back from the ladies race was Pamela Clark, an unaffiliated runner who was fundraising for the NSPCC as part of her Challenge (link to donate here.) Pamela led in a second chase pack of men, including Mohammed Hanif (Watford Joggers), Steven Kjar (Serpentine RC), and Gary Robbins lookalike Ian Gooderham (Vegan Runners UK). Adam Lakomiec, whose kindly donated 150 bottles of coconut water went down very well over the course of the race, also came in smiling.
And thus, the race was in motion. Rather than provide blow-by-blow coverage of how it all unfolded, I thought I would compile some of the stories that stuck out most to me. Everyone at the race underwent their own adventure, and each could occupy a whole post on this blog. These are just some of the runners whose journeys, for whatever reason, resonated with me in some deep way.
Steven Norris – runner number 10
Before we knew it, Steven Norris was back in camp again, finishing his second loop before some had even finished their first. His splits remained even, and he continued at a relentless sub-5 minute kilometre pace for a good four or five loops, slowing only by a few minutes per loop to complete a long marathon of 44.1km in just over 3 and a half hours. That’s including over 700m/2300 feet of climbing, remember.
Once he’d accomplished this monumental feat, though, Steven seemed on the edge of crumbling. He spent over half an hour laying down on the grass, chewing on a banana (his first food of the race) and seemingly lost in a mix of runner’s high and a deep, solitary anguish about whether or not to carry on. Never having run beyond a marathon, Steve was in unmarked territory, and watching his race unfold from this point was quite humbling. Later that evening, I watched Usain Bolt pull his hamstring in the men’s 4x100m relay at the World Athletic’s Championships, and I can honestly say the two experiences were similar: both times, I thought to myself, “He’s human after all.”
Steve did indeed push on, completing three more laps to cover a colossal 62.7km/39 miles and setting a course record that I can’t imagine anybody beating any time soon (how’s that for an invitation?)
Lisa Crane and Jim Buckland – runners numbers 4 and 49
Despite both taking a tumble and earning a few scratches early on, Lisa and Jim (who are not related other than by their similar race day experiences) returned at the end of each loop with smiles on their faces. When asked if they were carrying on, they embodied the aforementioned British, no-frills attitude to endurance with the unanimous response, “Why not?”
Why not, indeed?
As the day progressed, Lisa and Jim asked “Why not?” 6 times each, leading both to complete a marathon, Lisa in just under six hours, and Jim in just over six hours. Impressive.
Oh, and did I mention it was Lisa’s first marathon?
Yup. That’s right. My first marathon had a grand total of 40 feet of climbing in it; Lisa’s had 2300. I’m not sure if it was her intention to cover the distance when she started the Challenge, but Lisa’s quiet perseverance inspired all of us in camp to ask ourselves more often, “Why not?”
Oh, and Jim inspired us to wear better T-shirts.
Max and Stacey Holloway – runners numbers 33 and 34
Earning not only two podium spots between them but also the previously uncontested title of “Best paleoclimatologist/proton radiotherapist ultramarathon running couple 2017”, Max and Stacey managed to come into camp at the end of each loop looking like they’d just jogged to the car and back. Thankfully, Strava can attest to their innocence.
Both seasoned mountain runners and endurance athletes, I loved watching Max and Stacey’s races unfold mostly because they were local not only to Bushey but to the immediate area surrounding Merry Hill. It’s easy to look at far-off places like the Lake District or the Scottish highlands, or even further afield to the rugged terrain of the American midwest, and to romanticise the kind of people who run in such places to the level of demi-gods. So to discover that I live more or less up the road from two such ambitious, dedicated, and experienced individuals was both affirming and exciting. That is, when they’re not off proffesoring and sciencing.
Also, they ran in together. Cute.
Hortencia McKennie – runner number 16
There are runners, there are marathonners, and there are ultramarathonners; but only a select few can call themselves members of that most extraordinary of groups, the 100 Marathon Club. What I love about meeting such people, or those on the ‘quest for the vest’, is that they very rarely look like Eliud Kipchoge, or what many people would assume most marathon runners look like. It’s when people say things like, “I could never run a marathon” that I think of all the folks I’ve seen on their way to a hundred marathons and wonder why we impose so many limitations on our own self-belief.
Hortencia started the day with a clear goal; to tick off one more marathon from her list. However, with the six hour cut-off looming, she was still nowhere to be seen, and needed to finish her sixth loop soon or else risk not being allowed back out to finish her seventh. Half an hour to go, twenty minutes to go, fifteen minutes to go – still, nothing.
A neon green vest appeared on the horizon, and I glanced at my watch. In a display of near perfect pacing, with just over 10 minutes to go, Hortencia came bounding in to finish her sixth loop. After a sip of coconut water and a snack or two, she was off on a lap of honour, returning just over an hour later to claim marathon number 27.
How could we have ever doubted her?
Due to the way our results prioritise endurance over speed, Hortencia also earned herself an unanticipated 3rd place in the lady’s race.
Every runner out there on the day could have an entire blog post dedicated to their story, but I haven’t the level of endurance they clearly displayed to write such a post. Hopefully the above tales can attest to the flavour of the day. Some thanks need to be dished out: to my volunteers, Sharon, Emily, Jacqui, and Alexander, for helping the day go smoothly and for maintaining a fun, community atmosphere in camp; to Nazia, Emily, Lisa, and any others who baked/brought all the amazing food; and to Hertsmere County Council and the Woodland Trust, who allowed us to use their land free of charge. Please consider donating to the WT, allowing us to continue to enjoy the great outdoors for years to come.
Now, to the results!
More photos below the results table.
|First Name||Surname||Gen.||Race no.||Club||Loops||Offical Distance (km)||Gong Time|
|Max||Holloway||M||33||Cambridge Triathlon Club||9||56.7||6:27:22|
|Rafal||Tkaczyk||M||24||Vegan Runners UK||8||50.4||5:20:22|
|Andrew||Gwilliam||M||35||Barking Road Runners||6||37.8||5:14:51|
|Mark||Beech||M||47||Road Runners Club||6||37.8||6:00:45|
|Matthew David||Stears||M||21||Dacorum and Tring AC||5||31.5||4:44:42|
|Ian||Gooderham||M||45||Vegan Runners UK||4||25.2||2:47:44|
|Attila||Kovacs||M||38||Vegan Runners UK||2||12.6||1:18:17|
|Lisa||Crane||F||4||Vegan Runners UK||7||44.1||5:57:12|
|Hortencia||McKennie||F||16||Vegan Runners UK||7||44.1||6:55:30|
|Michelle||Ashwell||F||19||Dacorum and Tring AC||5||31.5||4:07:21|
|Jenny||Driscoll||F||25||Vegan Runners UK||4||25.2||3:55:14|
|Heather||Saranne||F||5||Fradley Ladies Running Club||4||25.2||4:42:30|
|Nazia||Islam||F||15||Vegan Runners UK||4||25.2||4:57:01|
|Victoria||Thornley||F||42||Dacorum and Tring AC||3||18.9||2:15:10|
|Verna||Burgess||F||17||Vegan Runners UK||2||12.6||1:12:44|
|Neil||Kurz||M||6||On The Run||DNS||DNS|
|Ann Maria||Parkinson||F||7||Kings Forest Cani-Cross||DNS||DNS|
|Michael||Burgess||M||18||Vegan Runners UK||DNS||DNS|