The area of the North Downs Way around Boxhill was one of the first places I ‘escaped’ to when I moved to London and made me realise I was able to get out of the city quite easily and soon be surrounded by countryside and of course trails to run on.
Although I’ve raced a few of Cancer Research UK’s charity races in the past, they’ve become less appealing as I’ve become a more experienced runner and wanted to challenge myself more in races. When they announced a new Tough 10 race series however I became more intrigued, and then when they released Boxhill as one of their race locations, deeming it the toughest, I was sold and managed to secure a place through the lovely Charlie aka The Runnerbeans.
The race was very easy to get to by train from London, I simply jumped on the train at Clapham Junction and off at Dorking for a ten minute walk to registration and the start line. Although I had looked quickly at the race route online, like others running on the day I just presumed we were running up Boxhill, which overlooked race HQ, and I wasn’t far wrong, with a few other hills to contend with to make up a 10km loop.
We started at 10am and headed straight onto a short section of road and then pavement, before seeking out the trails and heading into the leafy woods that surround Boxhill, over a river via footbridge (no famous Stepping Stones to skip over) to find ourselves at the bottom of the climb that leads to the summit. “270 steps to go” the sign read at the bottom, cheers! Onwards and upwards then, as I attempted to keep at a slow jogging pace for as long as possible, learning my lesson from last weekend’s hill race. As much as I wanted to however, the narrow stairs that wind their way to the top mean that you inevitably go at the pace of the runner in front, unless you’re brave enough to go off trail and risk untread ground, so the pace soon slowed to another quick walk up and up, until we finally reached the top and were greeted with clear views across the Downs.
I took the marshal’s words “flat now” with a pinch of salt as I knew from the elevation profile of the race online that there were a few more climbs to come, but the trails did flatten out and I stretched out my legs, enjoying the autumnal overgrowth around us, the golden colours of the leaves and streaks of sunshine that darted through the trees. After a lovely long downhill, we came out of a dense wooded section to see a dry grassy slope on our left with a train of runners on two sides, one up one down. Rather cheekily, the course directed us straight up, around a cone, and straight back down again, making up very little distance but a significant bit of elevation.
After the hill and a short stretch of more flatter trails to enjoy we got to the half way point of 5km and there was a water station with energy gels too, though I took neither and instead continued over the chip time mat before realising that we were once again climbing. I looked ahead and the gradient didn’t seem too steep but it looked like a long slog ahead, with many runners choosing to slow and walk. I kept running but dropped the pace, passing a few who were walking, and as I went the hill just kept coming, no end in sight. Eventually of course it did and there was another friendly marshal, cheering us on, “all flat now.” I think I’ve heard that one before.
We were over 6km in though so I knew it couldn’t get much tougher and that the hard climbs were behind us, so I kept at it, finding my feet between the loose leaves and hidden tree roots. I then had a realisation that I had been on these paths before and just as I noticed I spotted a North Downs Way marker and realised we were close to the top of Boxhill again, though around the opposite side to which we’d climbed up. Another short sharp incline and I could look down to race HQ with only another 3km to go, most of which would be flying down the hill we’d started on. I heard the faint ringing of a cowbell ahead as I was descending and knew James and Claudia, out to support their Advent Runners, were close by so I skipped faster down the steps, weaving around walkers coming in both directions and dogs excited to be out on an adventure. I reached the bottom of Boxhill, a little sad for the descent to be over and the race to be coming to an end so quickly, but turned that energy into running speed, heading for home to cross the finish line in just over the hour mark.
I really enjoyed this race, it didn’t feel like a charity race although we were more than welcome to join in and fundraise, but it was a beautiful course, very well organised, perfect weather conditions and tough enough to challenge even the more experienced runner. Everyone I spoke to after the race, whether a seasoned trail runner or first timer, loved it and it gave them the hunger to try more off-road races, which I think is great! The Tough 10 series is now over for 2016 but I look forward to trying out some new ones next year and would thoroughly recommend everyone to give one a go!