2019 for me was the year of the 10K, so it seemed appropriate to bookend the finish of the year and start of a new decade with two 6-and-a-bit mile races.
First up, the Wellington Monument race, which takes place on the last Sunday before Christmas.
What can I say about the Welly Monument 10K? It’s basically a run up a great big hill and back down again. The route is an out-and-back from the village of Hemyock to the Wellington Monument, which sits high up on the Blackdown hills.
I have a little bit of history with this race. I’d signed up to do it a few years ago, but the day before, managed to sprain my ankle so badly that it swelled up like a grapefruit and I never made the start line. So being able to run this time felt like a chance to finally complete something left undone.
The gradient profile of the route gave me slight collywobbles. As someone who suffered for years and years with chronic Achilles issues, this was exactly the kind of event I’d have avoided in the past.
I got a sense of what I’d be up against as I drove down the steep incline of Combe Hill towards Hemyock on race morning, with the kilometre markers telling me this was part of the route I’d be running. Not a sight to calm the nerves.
It was a bit of a grey day – we seem to have had a lot of those this past December. I greeted a few members of my running club on arrival, and then started what was meant to be an easy warm up. Since we’d be hitting the steep bits pretty quickly, it seemed a good idea to try to ease my body in a little more gently beforehand. For some reason, even ‘easy’ running didn’t feel very easy that morning. My heart rate just wouldn’t stay down. Just pre-race nerves?
At last it was time to line up for the start, outside the Catherine Wheel pub in the centre of Hemyock.
The beginning of the route runs along Station road through the village. It’s on a bit of a downhill, which was nice. But we’d also be coming back this way, which meant an uphill finish. Not so nice.
And it wasn’t long before we hit Combe Hill, this time on an up.
I genuinely like hills, especially since learning Chi techniques for tackling them. I’d far prefer to run a lumpy route than a boring, flat one. But this hill was NASTY.
The course description puts it at around half a mile. It felt far longer. I was soon puffing and panting. Around me, runners were stopping to walk. I tried to pull all my hill focuses together and keep going but breathing felt like hard work. There’s always that point on a steep hill where you wonder if you’d do better to walk than keep pushing, and I slowed down a couple of times to get my breath back. At this point, I was wondering what the hell I was doing running a tough 10K when I could be at home tucking into mince pies. Once would probably be enough for the Wellington Monument race.
But I found a few familiar faces to chat to, and at long last we reached the top of the steep bit. The running got easier as we hit a gentle downhill. A chance to relax, recover and prepare myself for the final uphill that would take us to the top of the Blackdowns. The hard thing was not knowing the route, and not being sure how much further we had to hang on.
When it came, the second uphill felt a lot easier, and I was surprised when I could already see the turn off ahead onto the relatively flat spine road that follows the top of the Blackdowns. It wasn’t too long before the front runners appeared, moving quickly in the opposite direction on their back down.
I know some people don’t like out-and-back courses, but it was really nice to be able to cheer on the runners at the front of the pack and say hi to those in a Running Forever Running Club vest.
After a short run along the road, we took a sharp right turn into the Monument car park and along the muddy trail to the Monument itself. Heavy rain in the previous days meant we were dodging big puddles but the hard bit of up hill running was over.
The Monument is a huge obelisk that looks out over a spectacular view of the South Somerset and North Devon countryside. It’s currently covered in scaffolding and looking a little less impressive than usual, but the view is still wonderful. Then we were round the loop and back on the homeward journey, and I had the chance to cheer on more familiar faces behind me.
It seemed like no time before we were on Combe Hill again and heading down to Hemyock.
I felt surprisingly at ease. Normally I dread steep downhills, but my recent trail running adventures seemed to have had a positive effect. Instead of trying to put the brakes on, like I’d usually be tempted to do, I focused on letting go and relaxing. And it actually felt good, even the really steep bit at the bottom 😊
Playing on my mind, though, was that last uphill. As we came back into Hemyock, it began. And it was heavy going. I felt as though I’d left all my chi on the first uphill, and there wasn’t much left in the tank. The up bit just seemed to drag on and on.
At last we passed Catherine Wheel pub where we’d started, and had the relief of a slight downhill before one final little push up to the finish at the local primary school. It was a relief to cross the finish line at last. But I was surprised and happy with a time of 53 minutes. I found out later that I’d been only about 20 seconds off being first in my age group.
So of course, having thought halfway up the first big hill that once was enough for the Wellington Monument 10K, I was already thinking I’d like to try it again and see what I could do now that I know what to expect.
Then we were into Christmas fortnight, and just a couple of weeks away from my second race, the Stoke Stampede. This is a 10K that seems to be immensely popular – it sells out within hours of registration opening, so I was intrigued to find out why. I’d managed to get a place from another runner in my club who couldn’t run.
But a couple of days after the Welly Monument, I came down with a stinker of a cold. I blame my husband, who was already coughing and sneezing like a good’un, but maybe my rubbish warm up at the race hadn’t just been down to nerves. Still, there was plenty of time to recover before the Stampede, surely?
I kept the running over Christmas easy, and it seemed to help, but the cold just would not shift. It dragged on all through Christmas and into the new year.
I was debating with myself whether racing was such a good idea. Would I just set myself back? And with marathon training starting, I didn’t want to lose a few weeks to recover from stupidity. But it was so tricky to get hold of a place, and I was still curious to find out why this particular race was so popular. I decided to run the Stampede anyway, just to enjoy it and not worry about times at all.
The day before, I joined my son at our local parkrun and had a bit of a rubbish run – low energy and generally feeling meh. Luckily I got chatting to Sally, another runner from my club who’d also be doing the Stampede, and good conversation got me round. Racing the next day was beginning to seem like less and less of a sensible idea, though.
On the Sunday morning of the Stoke Stampede, I felt about the same, and wasn’t looking forward to racing at all.
I knew next to nothing about this 10K, and the pre-race chatter didn’t help the nerves. Apparently there were big hills in the first half, and then some more just before the finish. So ‘save a bit for the end’.
I’d had in mind that it would be nice and flat in contrast to the Welly Monument race, but apparently I’d guessed wrong.
As I jogged slowly to the start, though, I felt a whole lot better than I’d done at parkrun the day before, and started to feel more hopeful.
The race is run around the pretty village of Stoke St Gregory. As we lined up, I’d never seen so many runners from my club together for a race, and there was a fun post-Christmas atmosphere.
Then came the signal to begin, and we were off. I took it easy, nasal breathing to keep the pace down and letting everyone run away from me. The beginning of the course is on a downhill, so I wondered where those evil uphills were? As we passed a 4K marker, I realised that there must be a loop. The village had turned out in force to cheer us on, and the support from Running Forever club members gave me a big boost too.
There was a little bit of uphill as we ran around the first loop and back to where we started, but nothing too dramatic. The nerves started to dissipate as we headed down the incline from the start for a second time – at least I knew this bit now.
For the first 4K, I felt pretty good – or at least much better than I’d done the previous day. I started to pass people, and just focused on keeping my effort level as easy as I could do in a 10K race.
As we ran past the 4K sign for the second time, and headed left to begin the larger loop of a figure of eight, suddenly I was in unknown territory again. Heading up to 5K, we hit a bit of a hill. Ah, this must be it. I felt like I was running a bit faster than I wanted to, but seemed to have locked into a pace. So I concentrated on trying to make things feel as easy as I could: using my arms, relaxing my legs and hips, and keeping as light on my feet as I could.
I’m not going to lie. The next 3 kilometres were hard work. The effects of the cold were definitely telling, and playing on my mind was the thought of the uphill at the end I was supposed to save something for. I didn’t feel as though I had a lot of energy left to spare.
Finally the 8K marker appeared. Now I knew there was only just over a mile to go and I felt more energy returning. And still no sign of any big hills.
9K arrived, with a very tame little incline. Then we were back into the village, with 200m to go.
At this point, I had no idea what my time was. The clock over the finish gantry was ticking up towards 50 minutes, and I put a spurt on to get over the line, but missed the milestone by a few seconds. Then I looked at my watch – 49:55, even though I’d started timing when the gun went off, not when I’d crossed the start line.
And now I’d finished running, I felt pretty good. Overall, it hadn’t been a scary course at all. I guess hills are relative, and after Costa Brava, the Herepath Half, and Wellington Monument race, what counts as a ‘big hill’ has changed a bit for me.
I was really pleased with my chip time of 49:40 – the fastest I’d run a 10K post-35 despite feeling under the weather. I was even more pleased when I heard that I’d finished first in age. Not a bad start to the year.
So I close 2019 and begin the new decade feeling like I’ve re-discovered the enjoyment of 10K racing. I’ve gained a little more confidence in downhill running. I’ve reset what I define as ‘hilly’. And I’ve laid the ghost of the missed Welly Monument race to rest.
I’d do both Christmas 10Ks again. And probably enjoy them more now I know the routes 😊 But as to why the Stoke Stampede is so unbelievably popular, not sure I’ve quite worked that one out yet…