Merthyr Mawr Christmas Pudding 10k 2008

Having jogged round this awesome course last year I was keen to run it "seriously" and see how I got on, so I negotiated an hour off from the Run and Become stall at the race start to actually warm up on the frosty woodland paths and arrive at the startline ready for the 11am kick off. It was bright, very cold and stunningly clear - there was a kind of holiday atmosphere mingled with that tense expectation that spreads through a crowd of runners before they subject themselves to something intense!

THE START: I'm the guy in black tights bang in the middle to the left of the leader - my Sri Chinmoy AC blue/white vest just visible. What an amazing start to a race! If you haven't done this you have to try it. At least once.

After the usual chat at the start, the owner (I believe - you couldn't hear much) of the Merthyr Mawr estate sent us on our way and the assault of Europe's tallest sand dune began. It was like some kind of battle charge, 600 runners surging up the steep, loose sand in a single mass of sweat, panting and painfully lactic muscles. This year, with the temperature so low, the sand was frozen hard and this made for an easier than usual climb - still, about three quarters of the way up my legs went to jelly and I was having to focus all my will to get them to move forward and upward. I had opted for the fast-start-to-avoid-the-bottleneck gambit, as you'd expect, and I think it paid off, as I was in the first 50 when we got to the crest of the dune and began to funnel into the single-file path between some savagely thorny bushes. Even being fairly near the front, I still came almost to a standstill, and we inched at a jog-walk-then-jog-again pace on the undulating sand.

Soon things opened out and overtaking became possible - some guys flew past me and I tried to go with them, overtaking a few with a fast descent on the soft sand - employing some comically long leaping strides (for once there was little danger, as a fall on that sand would only hurt your pride). After the sand, and back at sea level, a rather more sane multiterrain course begins, with paths back through the woods to the start and back past the carpark on to the lane. Here it was very slippy - whether you'd calll it genuine ice or just thick frost who knows, but I couuld feel my feet slipping slightly with each step and it took a lot of concentration to stay in the pack and also stay on my feet. I was loving it - such a varied and fun course in such beautiful surroundings - at that stage in a race, before the struggle really begins, you can feel the joy of life so intensely. Then a Santa overtook me which was a little deflating - oh well, I guess you learn humility that way. Better than being overtaken by someone in a full dalmatian suit like I was on the hellrunner a few years ago.

I was glad to see the back of the road, and get on to the very muddy field (somehow the frost had contrived to stay frozen on the road and yet to melt on the field - how does that work then?) where we ploughed across grass and bog to the bouncy footbridge and on to another lane - here Eric Hughes was counting us on to the path that leads up a testing hill to the moorland around the golf course and he made me 37th. It was a good, hard climb but not steep enough for any walking - then we were spattering through the mud between gorse bushes under the watchful eye of some very bemused golfers. The aid station came and went - perhaps that's rouughly the half way mark - and I wasn't tempted by the water let alone the mulled wine and mince pies. What goes up must come down, and fatigue began to stalk me on the long downhill through a glorious valley leading down toward the estuary. At the bottom, Lynn Hughes (Eric's twin) counted us back on to the road and despite being overtaken by quite a few, I was still 37th - I must have slipped past a few myself on the way up before I blew up. Now, though, I was pretty hammered and just trying to hang in and not let too many past me - I was determined to get in the top 50 (a totally arbitrary goal, but probably about right for my ability) so I knew I had to keep pushing myself hard all the way.

Every couple of minutes I heard the rasping breath and squelching feet of another runner coming up on my shoulder and edging past. At this point the course was winding along soggy paths through the warren alongside the river estuary, with occasional tight bends, short climbs and sections of loose sand to tax the already finished leg muscles. By the time the river section came around I knew I could hang on to my position, though I wasn't sure what it was, but with the final dash into the woods I summoned up a push for the finish to hear the number 44 from the marshal as I claimed my goody bag containing the hard-won christmas pudding. Which is apparently what we do all this for.

Oh well, I think that's 21 races done aged 40 and only 19 to go. Should be a piece of cake. Or do I mean pudding?

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