Saturday 21st January saw the 2017 edition of my most least favourite event of the year (more on this later), the Box Hill Fell Race. Organised by the wonderful South London Orienteers, it is one of only a handful of events in the south of England run under Fell Racing Association rules. The course is categorised by the FRA as 'BM', which means it is between 10km and 20km in length with no less than 25m ascent per kilometre, though according to my Garmin the total climb over the 12.3km course was well over 600m – equivalent to a whopping 37 reps of West Walk!
Like all good 'fell' races, competitors are subjected to a healthy mix of rough terrain, mud, hills, and some more hills. As an added bonus for this year, there was even a fallen tree blocking the path half way down a speedy descent, which I can't help but feel rather captures the essence of fell running: Moving quickly across whatever nature puts in your way. You'll not find aid stations stocked with the latest sports drinks and energy gels here – you'll not even find a bottle of water at the finish unless you brought one with you – this is no-frills running at its finest.
Sliding out of bed on a freezing Saturday morning, I wondered what the day had in store - I know the trails around Box Hill well and run there regularly, but I'd never visited in such cold temperatures and was concerned parts of the frozen course might be seriously sketchy. Arriving at the start after signing in, shedding some layers (one degree? That's vest and shorts weather, lad), and jogging the mile or so from race HQ, it became apparent that we were going to have to tread very carefully in places. The churned up muddy ground was frozen solid, and a layer of ice covered the many steps that would take us the 130m up to the viewpoint within the first kilometre. But at least the sun was shining, and the few areas of open grassland we were to cross had thawed enough to give those with the most grippy shoes the opportunity to make up some time.
The course has remained largely the same for the 36 years since the race's first edition, with only the start and finish being moved in 2015 at the behest of the National Trust. After rising to the famous viewpoint from the start at river level, runners plunge straight down the bank and onto a long undulating traverse of the North Downs' southern escarpment. A truly horrid death-march back up to the ridge sets the legs on fire, but there is a little respite as the course heads north into the woods behind the village of Box Hill itself. Another steep but mercifully short ascent follows, before we fall again to cross Headley Road to climb Mickleham Down.
Then the fun really begins. We turn left to begin our journey back towards Box Hill, and negotiate the descent of the notorious 'suicide steps': 182 of the muddiest, slipperiest, most uneven, and steepest quad-busting wooden-fronted pain makers that the south east has to offer. The gradient reaches 40% in places, and if the leg muscles had any strength left in them they'll be jelly by the bottom.
Only two climbs left now. The long drag up to Juniper Top, heart pounding, down the flint track (hurdling the fallen tree), across the Zig Zag Road, and one final tortuous push back to the viewpoint before heading back down the steps to the river, and the beautiful respite of the finish funnel. Two years ago in the mud I could sprint this and jump two steps at a time, but today I am reduced to the most delicate of totters, faced with the very real possibility of a face-full of icy mud and a week off work.
Sixteen Eagles cross the finish line of the 18 who started. On the way home I am mortified to hear that two of our flock have badly hurt themselves en route and had to go to hospital – get well soon Becky and Jessamy. Special mentions go to John Foxall, our fastest Eagle on the day finishing in 44th place with an excellent time of 67'11”, and to Jennifer Watt who finished first in the F40 category by more than a minute despite missing a turning near the end and running an extra 400m! I finish in 105th place in a time of 75'57” with a PB for the course, and later that day I upload my data to Strava and discover that my heart rate averaged 170 – only 13bpm off my max. HR of 183 and well into the red zone.
So that's why it's my most least favourite event – I suffer more than on any race in the calendar, and dread it in the lead-up to race day, but I can't stop going back and hope to run it for many years to come. I still can't walk properly despite 55 hours having passed since finishing, but next January can't come round quick enough.