Benfleet 15, The one with Hills, Mud, and some more Hills.
As is public knowledge, I am not a fan of hills. In fact, I hate hills. The creation of Lucifer himself. So, with that in mind I tend to choose my races very carefully and avoid any races which preview as “hilly” or even “slightly undulating”. So here we are entering for the third consecutive year, and I am running Benfleet 15.
Described as “It has a challenging 15 mile, multi-terrain course, incorporating sections of the Canvey Island sea wall, and the undulating Hadleigh Downs.”
“Challenging” being the most apt word in that description, and with it being in January, the weather adds another dimension to the race which can be soul destroying, energy sapping, or plain just abysmal. My first year was in Snow – what fun we thought, Wrong! Second year, drizzle, rain, swamp like conditions – how we laughed – Wrong!
So why did I sign up for a third year? Well mainly because running buddy Richard Farr insists that I do it, but also because this is truly a race like no other.
All of the runners have their own agenda like most races, aiming for their own target times, or personal bests, but there is an undoubted comradeship rarely seen in other races. To borrow a phrase of more recent political times “we are all in it together” could have been written for this race alone. This year was no different.
This was the 25th Anniversary race for Benfleet Running Club, and as such the race has reputation which is well established as friendly, fun and devilishly brutal, bringing in all types of runners from clubs far and wide, and has become a firm favourite on the racing calendar.
Leading up to this race we have had rain and wind battering the South East, which played beautifully into the race organisers hands. I have started to believe they pray for dreadful weather. Whilst the weather on the day was kind compared to previous years, it was far from tame on the course. I asked Terry Spooner, a Benfleet RC stalwart, how the course was before we set off – with a wry smile he said “wet, very wet and boggy at 3-4 miles” he added “and mile 13-15 will be interesting”. Boy was he right! What about the rest Terry!
We all set off, smiling away, pre-race photo taken, and amused at the Drone filming nearly 600 runners snaking their way down the hilly countryside.
All downhill at the start you see, hence the smiles. Then hill one, that was tough, hill two, walk a bit of this…..hill three – can’t keep going, then hill 4 – OH COME ON!! – it went on like this for 4-5 miles. How quickly I had forgotten the previous two years.
The hills were one thing, but the mud was a different story all together, slip sliding, losing shoes, cries and yelps as people landed with what had become a familiar sounding “slap” normally bottom first into the mud.
My running partner for the day Josanne, found it great fun, and darted off into the distance like a gazelle on the plains – leaving me cursing my heavy feet, sliding from one side of the track to another. There just seemed no let up of the mud underfoot. Mile after mile it went on and on….
Things level out around mile 5 when the greatest, most beautiful sight appears in front of you – concrete. Flat, beautifully grey, solid concrete. The ambrosia of all materials to run on. An audible sigh of relief from the immediate pack rang out around me. Glory be! Terra Firma!!
We then run out for a couple of miles, with some good crowd support, before ducking behind Leigh train station as you head out along the seawall towards Canvey. I looked up to the hills we had left to see runners still snaking their way down, how I did not envy them!
I had caught up with Josanne by now, and we steadily ate through the miles, and around 1 cubic ton of Jelly Babies so generously handed out by the marshals, until we met Amanda and Diesel, who laughed at the state of us, and sent us on our way with “a good luck” and a good lick from Diesel – Amanda’s faithful Spaniel.
It is funny how a little message of “well done” or “good luck” can give you a boost, and none more so than seeing Lin and Val Taylor, with pom-poms waving and screaming for us to “keep going” Brilliant support.
However this was not limited to members of just the Flyers. It seems regardless of the colour of your shirt, everyone sees the pain etched into your face and encourages you to do “one more hill” or to “keep going”. There are no rival clubs here.
We meandered around the Canvey Sea wall, when assuringly I told Josanne we are over the worse of it now, which was mile 11. “All good once we clear Benfleet Station Hill” – how we were smiling at this stage is beyond me, but on we plodded onwards and upwards. I forgot about the other 4 or 5 monster hills yet to come.
The last 1-2miles were off-road and as about as muddy as you can get. To borrow a phrase from Sean Macfarlane, “it was more like “It’s a Knockout” not a race.
Jo had once more proved the more nimble of the two, and tip toed her way into the distance.
“Almost there” the marshals shout as you round the corner to be met with the finish line. Where do you think it was? Yep – on a hill! Probably as steep as any of the others, if not more. You look up towards the summit and the crowd pull you up.
A deep breath at the foot, and Charge!!! Energy sapping, lung bursting but with so many cheering you on, you just love it. Home with a Garmin time of 2:29. Respectable.
This is a great race, organised by a great club. The marshals are heroes and the cheering, and encouragement never wanes. Pulling people up hills, advising where solid ground is, jelly babies – incredible really considering they are standing around in the freezing weather.
I was half way up one said hill, clawing away on hands and knees to keep traction, when I received a face full of lycra clad bottom, from a young lady who slid down taking me back to the foot of the slope. We just laughed, and went and tried our luck one more time, with more success I am happy to add. Mainly thanks to the marshal who despite us being covered in mud, offered his hand to pull us up.
I hate this race, it’s not easy. You should train for it. You should not have a fear of hills – like me. You should not hate mud – like me.
Will I be back next year? You bet I will! I cannot recommend it highly enough. This race should be made running law and everyone made to do it. The problem is, once is never enough…..