Running up Box Hill… with a baby

My wife was racing in Surrey. I found myself on Box Hill. Just me, a baby and a running buggy.

Ordinarily, the baby (my daughter, I hasten to add) goes to sleep the instant the buggy begins to move. She can cry hysterically during the insertion process, but move the thing a millimetre and it is like she has been drugged. That is ordinarily. Today, the hysterical process continued into movement. I jogged a couple of laps of the car park. The crying got worse. I ran down to the trig point overlooking Dorking. She was now weeping uncontrollably. Big tears. Hungry, cold, tired, fed-up? Who knows? I extricated her from the buggy and we hugged. I hugged; she wasn’t interested in hugging. She scowled, howled and pushed her little arms into my chest. Oh, the rejection.

‘What is wrong with you?’ I asked as Perfectly Behaved Family walked past.

‘Why the £&@! are you crying?’ I demanded when they were out of earshot.

Back in the buggy, she continued to cry. Two more laps of the car park. Silence. I dared look. Her eyes were closed. I lifted her left hand to place it out of the cold. Her eyes flashed open. She fixed me with a stare of unearthly hatred. She roared. She visibly shuddered.

‘Have a cold hand. Get frostbite. See if I care.’

Another lap. Silent again. Both of us.

I took my chance and started the watch. I had gone a quarter of a mile at a pathetic pace when she erupted. I relented this time, passing her an Ella’s Yum Yummy Cookie. I’ve tried them. They are not yum yummy. The cookie had the effect of a sleeping pill though. Two minutes of clumsy chewing, then she was gone.

I continued towards Box Hill village. It was not very exciting. I was on a pavement next to a road that could have been anywhere.

There was always the zigzags. I instantly dismissed the idea, then began to rationalise the prospect. This road wasn’t busy with traffic; the zigzags wouldn’t be either. If cyclists can ride two or three abreast, why can’t I irritate motorists too? That is something I would positively relish.

I made my way back towards to the car park, passed the cafe and began the descent. We fizzed down, running an almost seven-minute mile as the gradient eased. At the roundabout on the A23, we turned to begin the ascent. There is only so fast you can run with a buggy. The reasons are obvious: wind resistance, weight, altered running style, and so forth. The biggest barrier to speed is the fact that there is a limit to how reckless you can be when pushing a 10-month-old along a road without social services getting a call. Because of that, it’s safer to be going uphill than down when the variables can be more easily controlled.

There is a variable greater than anything I’ve noted above, however. A great fear. A great inevitability. She will wake. And when she wakes, she will want out of that buggy. I’d been going close to 40 minutes when I began the ascent; I was already pushing my luck. I didn’t hang about. We didn’t catch a cyclist. We were close. One overtook us on the first zigzag, then slowed. We were gaining metre by metre, only for the rider to glance over his shoulder and – in recognising the potential ignominy of being passed by a baby being pushed up Box Hill in a buggy – got off his saddle and tried a bit harder. Bottom to top in 15 minutes: a good effort even without a buggy. The baby hadn’t even opened her eyes.

She was still sleeping as I joined the queue in the cafe. As I paid, I tried to wake the baby. She wouldn’t stir. She was cold. She’s dead, I decided. I’ve killed her – somehow – by running up Box Hill. What will my wife say? She won’t like this much. What will the Daily Mail say?

‘Here is your change.’


I prodded her cheek again. An eye lazily opened.

‘You’ve just run up Box Hill,’ I told her when we were sitting down. Or when I was sitting down. She’d been sitting down the whole time.

She seemed to shrug. Her eyes said all I needed to know: just give me the yoghurt!





Discovering Strava

I have discovered Strava. Or Strada, as my wife likes to call it. ‘That’s a restaurant chain,’ I point out annoyingly. ‘Totally different.’ I joined Strava earlier this year, but I did not really get it. Another way to record how far and how long you have been running or cycling, I thought. I used it only three times. Yesterday, however, I downloaded the data from my Garmin onto Strava: a simple task even for the mind of a technophobe. Up popped ‘segments’ from numerous runs I had done. Essentially, in a given 10-mile run, for instance, there may be a dozen or more ‘segments’ over which you can compare your time with fellow runners. Presumably these ‘segments’ are calculated and compared by some wizardry in the sky that is far beyond my comprehension; yet regardless of how Strava works, it is a marvel. Now I know that I am the seventh fastest runner (out of 34 – it is a big sample) to run the ‘Yacht Club to Martello’ segment in Seaford, a distance of 1.3 miles. I feel happier knowing this. A chap called ‘David Bradford’ holds the CR (course record), although I have a feeling he may have been cycling, as his time of three minutes, 26 seconds would make him the fastest miler on the planet. More interestingly, I found out I am the CR holder (out of 37 this time) for the 0.7-mile ‘Zig Zag Rd Climb’ up the steps from the stepping stones to the trig on Box Hill. (You will know exactly where I mean if you know Box Hill). I feel happier knowing this too. And so on…

Oh, Strava, I was painfully slow to find you, but running will never be the same again.


Overcoming adversity and adverse conditions at the Box Hill Fell Race 2013

The 2013 edition of the Box Hill Fell Race was a treacherous affair, ran in conditions that can only be described as adverse. Snow had fallen the previous day, so much snow that parts of the ground were no longer visible. In some areas, the ground was covered by as much as two inches of snow. Overnight, the temperature had plunged and plummeted to at least -1C. We were in the grip of the Beast from the East. The race should have been cancelled, of course. To persevere was nonsense. Close our schools! Ground our aeroplanes! Shut our roads! Box Hill Fell Race, how dare you assume you can beat the big freeze, the cold snap, the English weather. Extreme care, that should be the motto of the English.

Despite the bitterly cold, Arctic conditions, the race was definitely on, the organisers stoically insisted, and so some 200 fools assembled at the foot of the towering peak that is Box Hill to bravely face conditions that were treacherous and severe, and almost certainly adverse. We were sent on our way. No kit inspection. What if someone neglected to pack an extra jumper? Hypothermia would soon set in. What if someone hadn’t fully charged their mobile phone? How would they cope, lost and hopeless, in the vast, snowy, adverse recesses of Box Hill? What if someone wasn’t carrying a full complement of plasters. How would they ever mend their broken leg? I carried nothing but my common sense.

The risk of slips and trips was high as we proceeded up an icy glacier, the reckless and scantily clad moving to the front. Upon reaching the highest point of the climb, we descended the notoriously steep south face of Box Hill above Dorking. Down there, people were being sensible: reading the Daily Mail, checking on elderly neighbours and not travelling unless absolutely essential. Our route, unbelievably, had not been gritted. There was a high probability of fall. Conditions were increasingly treacherous. Pesky tobaggoners (tabogganists?) had smoothed the surface. Were I prone to hyperbole and metaphor, I would say the slope was an ice rink, a pane of glass; let’s just say it was extremely slippery. You’d have thought someone would have stopped to help, given me their arm and assurance. But, no, the hooligans hurtled past, leaving the doddering descender to his fate. It was treacherous.

Conditions on the rest of the course can only be described as severe, treacherous and, at times, hazardous. At one point, the route passed through a forest on a cambering path. Yes, I suppose it was pretty, but an adverse camber in adverse weather? Highly dangerous. The risk of slipping was considerable. The organisers will pay for their recklessness if I fall, I thought. No win, no fee – one of those. The south face was not an anomaly;  not one part of the course was gritted, even the major routes. The end drew near, but first there was one more (ungritted, undoubtedly adverse and treacherous) downhill stretch to the finish line. The risk of falling over and making a fool of myself was very high, as was the potential of being mown down by a 10-year-old on a toboggan. Treacherous, severe and very, very adverse, it is a wonder I made it to the end.

Those very important results are here.

Box Hill

Nocturnal wanderings in Surrey and London

End time

A night run of at least 30 miles from Guildford to London had seemed a good idea earlier this week. Today – at home, in the warm and dry, surrounded by food – it seems a good idea. Crossing the M25 at 11 o’clock last night, having negotiated 15 miles of the North Downs Way and soggy Box Hill – all in the dark – with another 15 miles of pavement-pounding to go, the whole ordeal seemed anything other than a good idea. This was stretching the boundaries of fun.

It started easily enough. (It always does!) The pavements of Guildford gave way to the sand of St Martha’s Hill, and the mud of the North Downs Way to Westhumble thereafter. The world is, naturally, a different place by night. Views are replaced by twinkling lights; North Downs Way car parks are used for alternative purposes; the familiar is unfamiliar. For large chunks of our journey, our existence shrunk to the milky beam cast by our head torches. The pace of our trio was deliberately slow, partly due to the greater care necessitated by darkness, partly due to the distance ahead.

A grind up steps to Box Hill, a sparkling view of Dorking, then a fortuitous descent to Mickleham. Stane Street, a classically-straight Roman road, went north and east, flinging us over the M25 to Epsom Downs. It was then a very long way from Epsom to Streatham on a route that desperately lacked inspiration: Ewell, North Cheam, Morden, Mitcham and Streatham – places not known for their prettiness. There were dodgy looks and sporadic abuse. The only benefit from such a route was the 24-hour petrol stations. Marathon distance passed, then the psychological milestone of 30. Bodies began breaking down. Running resembled limping, while Duncan went down with jelly baby poisoning in Mitcham. With a mile to go, I pressed on alone, through 33 miles, through six hours, through 1am. This had been no race, but there are few better finish lines than your own front door.

Route here

Box Hill fell race 2012

Today was my third Box Hill fell race. I clocked 62.52 in 2008, 57.23 in 2011. I was quicker still today, breaking the line in 55,45. With this rate of progress, I’ll break the course record in about 2017. Every runner wants to develop, to be faster, but it doesn’t get any easier.

I strode up the initial incline vying for 3rd place; two runners at the front had already detached themselves from the field. By the top of the hill, I had drifted to 5th. Seconds later – upon reaching the bottom of the first descent – I was battling to stay in the top-10: a cautious plunge the cause of my downfall.

We contoured the southern slopes of Box Hill, then were sent on a steep downhill section again. Having reeled in all the runners who had spilled in front of me during the first coming down, the same vests repeated the trick on this one. It was a pattern that continued race-long.

Each time, it was harder to catch those in front. Eventually, after another series of thigh-battering descents, they were too far away to catch. By the time I found myself descending steps (dog-hurdling required here) to Headley Common Road for the second time, it was those behind me that had became a more pressing concern.

The ups weren’t much easier. After the skywards Box Hill blast, followed by two sharp descents, along with lots of fast, flat terrain in between, the second major ascent on the course – through an avenue of trees – was the hardest of the race. It is every year.

I was soon walking, musing how in 30 miles of running six days earlier I hadn’t walked a step on a hill, yet 15 minutes into the Box Hill fell race I had already succumbed to that insatiable desire to stop running. There, I suppose, lies the irony of running and racing. Sometimes it’s a battle; sometimes you’ve got to just ‘hang in there’. That was today.

UPDATE – 25.1.12: Results online here.

Preparing to meet Bob

I am taking Askwithian advice when it comes to training for my Bob Graham round (pencilled in for spring 2012): ‘The only regimes that work are those that you can accommodate in your life.’ The question is, how much can I physically (and emotionally) accommodate? It is a gruelling undertaking training for a 70-mile run that involves thousands of metres of ascent wherever one lives; in the relative flatlands of south London, it is near-impossible. This was my week (or, essentially, my attempt at accommodating Bob – and everything else).

MONDAY: A 7.5-mile ‘recovery’ run – recovery from a 12-hour day at school, recovery from a 15-mile run the day before. The 60-metre or so ascent of South Norwood Hill? Imagine the climb’s equivalent, the height gain between Broad End and Ill Crag, I told myself. It is very hard to imagine, admittedly; the contrast could not have been greater. A final 15-metre climb to home? Well, that’s like Great Dodd to Watson Dodd three times. Home, food, another two hours of report-writing. Bed at 11pm. Tired. And it is only Monday.

TUESDAY: To the track. Warm-up, a classic session – six repetitions of 800 metres, broken by 200-metre recovery jogs. There is that word again. A succession of 2,41s, with a final 2,35. A 6-mile night in all. Oh, and a 15-mile cycling round-trip – the return in a monsoon.

WEDNESDAY: Merciful rest. Or nearly – 15 miles cycling.

THURSDAY: A social event at school; I leave at 8.30pm. ‘Are you really running home?’ a fourth or fifth incredulous colleague asks. ‘In this? Why don’t you get the tram?’ They have a fair point. ‘This’ is a mucky night: rain and wind. I run all the same, even adding an additional 1.5 miles to the typical 7.5 miles it takes to reach home, and throwing in a couple of short, sharp hills at the end. South Norwood Hill conquered – again.

FRIDAY: A gentle run with students. No more than 4 miles, but a worthwhile stretch of the legs. No suicidal road crossings. It sets a bad example to children, apparently. Another 15 miles on the bicycle.

SATURDAY: To Box Hill. A 13.5-mile up-and-down run around Denbies vineyard, then onto the hill itself, following the course (albeit haphazardly) of the Box Hill fell race. The ground was sodden, causing me to slip and slide. A marvellous two hours, nonetheless , particularly when the alternative – and the easy option – would have been a ‘hilly’ run on far more stable ground around Crystal Palace. I arrived home to find an email from a friend suggesting two pre-BG preparation events: one, The Pilgrim Challenge, a 66-mile, three-day ultra on the North Downs; and two, The Thames Trot Ultra, a 50-mile jaunt between Oxford and Henley along the river. The thought of either filled me with horror. I filled in an entry form for Box Hill, which made me feel a little better.

SUNDAY:  A 30th birthday party meant I could not join the usual club run today, thus robbing me of a two-hour effort. Nor could I run the Pirie 10 on Farthing Down. A brisk 5 miles around Streatham and Tooting Bec commons sufficed. Perhaps wise. Illness is on the way, I am convinced. There are odd pains in my right ankle too. They have 24 hours to go away before the next Monday ‘recovery’ run. So, a 47-mile week, with an acceptable amount of those hill-specific. Bob has been accommodated. Just about. Only 30 weeks of this to go.

 Box Hill. Not quite Lakeland. Definitely not London.

Box Hill fell race 2011

‘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.

Box Hill – 209.4m, apparently

There’s not many hills in London to run up, certainly no proper hills. Box Hill in the Surrey Hills is about as good as it gets. Four months in London and my mountain legs have already deserted me. In their place are the puny, road-running limbs of a southern softie unacquainted to a steep slope. I had forgotten that once familiar lactic acid burn that arrives in the calves when the gradient steepens. Still, it was a useful 11-mile run and Box Hill is a fine place from which to survey the world.