On 28 February the annual Belvoir Challenge celebrated its 25th year. Run on the Belvoir estate in Leicestershire, the format is always the same, two races with a common massed start, one around 26 miles and a shorter version at 15 miles. Both races are open to runners and walkers, the only time limit is that after the scheduled 9am start, everyone has to be finished before 6pm. Interest is maintained year to year because (a) a lot of the course covers areas of the estate not normally accessible to the public and (b) the courses themselves vary from year to year. The event draws a crowd, and this year there were about 1300 participants at the start. I ran the full course two years ago, when it was almost 27 miles with a height gain of 1400ft; this year's comparable stats turned out on the day to be 26.3 miles and 2000ft of ascent.
I was just a little apprehensive to be competing because I hadn't run a marathon for a long time. I had done plenty of ultras, but for me these usually involve walking a lot of the uphills and generally taking life easy in preparation for the longer events in the summer. A marathon distance seems too short for this sort of wimping out, and as I knew most the course would be runnable I felt I should bite the bullet and give it a go.
The drive down was not uneventful, detours caused by road works and an accident turned the 110 mile trip into 140, but I still arrived in good time to check in at Harby Village Hall, the base for the event. The road accident, not far from here, had apparently caused delays for many competitors so the start was delayed until just after 9.15am. The event is apparently famous for mud but on my only other acquaintance in 2013, the weather was cold and crisp so the majority of ground was frozen and we were treated to a snow shower at the finish. Today was going to be different, temperatures around 7 degrees and overcast with a bit of drizzle before the start.
We hit the first mud within a few hundred yards of the start. Enclosed green (now brown) lanes, ankle deep, gooey, slippery, and nowhere to escape. Keeping upright was hard enough, making forward progress even more problematic; energy sapping stuff. All this was made more interesting by the regular appearance of stiles causing a fair bit of queueing in the large packed eld. After maybe a couple of miles there was an interesting slither up a short steep bank to a stile leading into a field, then we lost the constraining hedges, the mud lessened and things got much better. I had forgotten about the mud. When the Rotherham race was held in December, usually immediately after ploughing, I used to take an old kitchen knife for quickly removing clods to keep the weight of accumulation on feet down, but now I had to resort to scraping on stiles and fenceposts along with everyone else. For most of the course though it wasn't too bad, we just kept coming across patches of a few hundred yards or so that gave us the treatment.
The stiles were interesting too. I suppose in Cheshire we must be getting soft; our Sandstone Trail used to have well over fifty of them but it's now down to half a dozen at most, the others being replaced by the seemingly ubiquitous kissing gates - a trend that I think we're seeing almost everywhere, but not at Belvoir - they like stiles here.
If all this makes it sound like the run was hard work at times, well it was. But once past the initial mud roads it was in pleasant undulating countryside, a mixture of field edges, woodland, farm tracks and country lanes, going through occasional small villages where you often came across a checkpoint. The checkpoints were brilliant, friendly marshals and great homemade cakes. During the course of the run I made my way through chocolate brownies, muffins, tiffin, scones and spongecake - although I was warned of this because it does say on the event's website that it's definitely possible to put on weight during the course of the race.
I had thought that I might go for a 10 minute mile average for the race, but pace on the really muddy bits soon came down to something more like 12's, so with the stiles and checkpoint distractions I decided to go for 10.30 as a target, and managed to get to then hover around this for the duration. It meant running a lot of long slow uphills but I hadn't done that for a while so I'm sure it did me good.
The land hereabouts seems to consist of long ridges and troughs, with good views from the ridges. After 15 miles or so we were on a ridge top and could see Belvoir Castle on an adjacent ridge across the valley, a fine looking pile. I was sure that we had passed by the front gates in 2013, but not this time, though we eventually reached the ridge that it was on a little further along. There was a great bit of track along this ridge with woods on one side and views out over Harby and the adjacent villages on the other. By now we had also rejoined the 15 mile course which had taken a "short cut" half way along ours, so there were plenty of people to target and overtake. I had been surprised that on the more remote stretches of the 26 mile loop you could be completely on your own at times in spite of the large field.
At 23 miles there was a long easy descent through another small village, but there was a final little sting in the tail with another couple of miles of "mud road" back to Harby. But overall, an enjoyable and well-run event.
I finished in 4 hours 37 minutes. Not sparkling for a marathon, even a trail run with a bit of climbing, but in the prevailing conditions I was happy with that compared with my 4 Hours 28 minutes in 2013, on a flatter course in much easier conditions. I was in 62nd place out of about 330 starters on the 26 mile option.
Well the warm-up for 2015 is now done. First "proper" event coming up in three weeks, the Hardmoors 55.