‘This is a proper fell race,’ a fellow runner declared in the minutes before the Box Hill fell race. ‘Proper’ fell race? In Surrey? On a 224-metre hill? How I scoffed. A scoff of a man who believed he was qualified to scoff, a veteran of Ben Nevis, Jura and Slioch – actual ‘proper’ hill races.
Suffice to say, I shouldn’t have scoffed. Hill running doesn’t get any easier, regardless of the hill being situated in Surrey or Scotland. Nor is the race’s height gain – more than 500 metres – something to be sniffed at, like starting at sea level and running halfway up Snowdon.
Box Hill’s challenges are twofold. Not only are the ascents and descents a mixture of long and gradual and short and steep, but the firmness of the ground makes the course truly runnable – and therefore fast. There is no respite.
For all its runnability (that’s not a real word, I know), I was soon walking, hands on thighs, puffing hard, musing over the irony that just a few months after trotting up the UK’s highest mountain, Box Hill had the measure of me.
Others were struggling, too. Reaching the top of another climb, I was greeted by the sight of a racer loudly and violently emptying his breakfast onto the road.
On it went: up and down, round and round, up and down a bit more, a punishing, thigh-bashing descent down steps, a long, relentless slog up an interminable incline, a sharp scramble beneath a fallen tree, a final, steep grind uphill, and then – the joyous sight of the finish.
I can recall few finer finishes than Box Hill. For about 300 metres, the runner plummets downhill. The ground is grassy but smooth; there is no danger of falling. It was wonderful, moments of pure running joy. Gripped by gravity, my stride opened, as I sprinted as fast as I possibly could.
Such is the glory of this finishing straight, it is little wonder runners breathlessly gush about the charms of Box Hill as they gather at the finish line. The brilliance of the last few hundred metres extinguishes the pain of the previous seven miles.
So, in conclusion, Box Hill is certainly no fell, but its race is indeed worthy of the title fell.