The Cheshire Sandstone Trail is not what you might call a spectacular walk, but it's what we have and certainly pleasant enough. Loosely based on the low sandstone ridge running north to south through the county, by utilising a couple of rural farmland sections to link the hillier bits it manages to wind its way from Frodsham on the Mersey estuary to Whitchurch just over the border in Shropshire. Thirty three and a half miles long, undulating between sea level and a high point around 750 feet elevation, it's a nice day out, gentle hills, woods, green lanes and fields, with some pretty views in places. I've covered it on many occasions over the years in times ranging from just under twelve hours (first attempt, thirty three miles was a long way in those days) to just under six and a half when I was fitter than I am now. It's a logistically easy exercise from Chester - train out to Frodsham, down the trail, bus back from Whitchurch; water is a bit of a problem though as there are only two cafes on the trail and they're not open reliably. So when I found out that there is an annual race down (or rather up, ie south to north) along the trail it seemed a good opportunity to get a supported trip.
The event is efficiently organised by he Helsby Running Club and its reputation is good enough that the 250 available places are filled some weeks before the day, so last Saturday saw a small fleet of buses setting out from Frodsham community centre at 7am bound for Whitchurch. The promised heavy rain showed up a few minutes before our arrival, leading to the spectacle of 250 runners and walkers fully kitted out for the weather but huddling under the shelter of the Whitchurch Tesco canopy, unwilling to make the 5 minute walk down to the start line. We had to break cover eventually though, and were greeted by race organizer Andy Robinson ready to set us off and the Mayor of Whitchurch, complete with suit, chain and suitably large umbrella, who said he hoped we would have a nice day and could we please bring better weather next year.
I was feeling a bit envious of those who had rain jackets with hoods, but then rationalising that I couldn't remember actually wearing a hood in any event previously, I put this down to just a momentary nesh thought and assumed it wouldn't seem so wet once we got going. It didn't of course and the first two or three miles along the canal towpath out of Whitchurch went pleasantly enough. Then we turned off onto the first "agricultural" section. Although the rain had now stopped, the hour-long downpour had had a significant impact on the course underfoot which now alternated between long wet grass and wet mud, often up to ankle deep. Those who have run the Rotherham Round in the days when it used to be held in December will get the picture, no niceties, just plough through the deep bits and hope you still have two shoes when you reach the other side.
I had decided to take the day very easily, so I walked anything that smacked even remotely of uphill and settled into a steady jog on the rest. There were checkpoints with friendly marshals and nice cakes every five or six miles and we had soon covered the ten miles to the southern end of the Peckforton Hills, where the route gets much more interesting. However coming down the final slope to checkpoint three we were greeted by the second extended downpour of the day, just to keep things interesting. The five or six miles of farmland from Beeston Castle to Willington seemed particularly sloppy, and we were all glad to hit the southern edge of the final hilly section for a change of scene and hopefully some slightly better ground underfoot.
I had played a sensible game for the best part of twenty five miles, but on reaching the firmer tracks of Delamere Forest I got a bit bored with this tactic, decided to push on a bit and ran steadily from there to the finish. I'm paying for that now, because although my calf seems to have held up well after what was my longest continuous period of running this year, the PF in the corresponding foot (all these things seem to be linked) has been rather fierce in the couple of days since the race. But it felt good to make some semblance of being a runner at least for an hour or two, and it got me back to the finish in Frodsham in 7 hours 28 minutes for 51st place.
At last, the first event of the year. Hopefully, things can only get better.