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Race Report: Orion Harriers Forest Five

June 1, 2013

The last time I ran something this close to cross country was something alarmingly close to 20 years ago, after which I had to be hosed down with ice-cold water before I was even allowed into my grandparents’ house to have a bath and get changed.

A series of three five-mile trail races through Epping Forest for a bargain-bucket price of £6 per race? It would have been rude not to enter, frankly. Making final preparations the night before – checking parking, travel times, etc. – I found myself getting increasingly excited at the prospect of the following day’s running. Naturally, with the come-back well underway and a raft of races signed up for, the prospect of any race is strain-at-the-leash exciting, but there was something doubly appealing about the odd distance and the promise of undulating off-road trails.

I turned up in good time, found the club house to pick up my race number, and made my way to the start line – which was actually just an arch with the word ‘Finish’ emblazoned on it. A number of running-club flags had been stuck into the turf, and groups of club-runners stood around territorially in their club colours. A solitary man in a Serpentine vest mooched around, vastly outnumbered by Daggenham Joggers and East London Runners and Mornington Chasers and smaller smatterings of other clubs.

Before things could go all West Side Story, we were called to the start line for the race briefing. Standing towards the back, I couldn’t hear most of the briefing, but there were claps for a runner’s birthday and laughs about something to do with horses. I presumed it had something to do with the great piles of horse manure I’d dodged round walking over from the club house.

No sooner had the race director shouted ‘Go’, and we were off, stampeding over the uneven grassy ground like a startled herd of sheep. The undulations came quickly, first down, then up, then down again as we cut back on ourselves and into the cover of the forest. The worst of the potholes were marked with sawdust, and the worst of the puddles were coned off, but as we hit the trails and cantered downhill it became clear that despite the previous day’s dry warmth, there was mud and slick ground to contend with.

I’d opted for relatively low-profile shoes and the forest floor was beautifully cushioned – like running on down-stuffed pillows – and I was feeling pretty good, so I pushed on at a pace I felt comfortable with. Again, despite having my Garmin on, I’d turned off all sounds and was just running on feel.

The first mile marker flashed past after what felt like a surprisingly long time. I was still feeling good, though, so just stuck with a pace I was happy with. This continued until somewhere in the third mile, where I started to feel a bit fatigued. Looking at the Garmin data, this seemed to coincide with an uphill section, which makes sense. Anyway, I consciously ignored how hard the run felt, and focused on finding a gear that felt comfortable. Soon enough I’d recovered to push on and start making a bit more forward progress through the field.

Having lept over a few gulleys, streaming puddles and avoided some slick uneven downhill sections that had been churned by hooves, we came across a group of horse riders. The horses were looking a bit skittish and I slowed and pulled to the far side to pass. Once out of their way, it was time for the final push – and slowing to pass the horses had been a good chance to recover and regain a bit of strength.

We followed a dirt track on a slight decline before turning right and slogging up a relentless and uneven hill. My weeks of ending sessions with a run up 8 flights of stairs in the office came into their own as I overtook a guy who’d been lingering tantalisingly in front of me for a while. The ground levelled, and then we turned sharply to the right and to a rough downhill section that marked the final hundred metres or so. I caught up with another runner ahead of me, only for him to spot me and put on a full sprint to beat me to the line.

Crossing into the finishing funnel, I stopped my watch – 32:59. Given the undulating terrain and the current stage of my recovery, I’m pretty chuffed with that! Being a proper old-school race (i.e. no chip timing), it’s going to take a while for the results to get published, so I’ve no real sense of how far I was behind the top of the field.

I got chatting to a guy I’d seen at a few points in the race, who recommended the Parliament Hill cross country over the winter if I wanted an even hillier, longer, muddier route. Quite tempted. I then told him an inadvertent complete lie: ‘I’m doing the Burnham Beeches Half next weekend, so this’ll be good preparation for the hills.’ This is nonsense, which I can only put down to endorphins and oxygen debt. I’m doing the Southend Half next weekend, which is pancake flat.

I’ll actually be doing Burnham Beeches in August, by which time I will have completed all three Forest Five races as they’re held the first Saturday of June, July and August. So, if you’re in the area and you fancy something a bit longer than a Parkrun on a Saturday morning, I’m not sure I can recommend the Forest Five enough. Loved it.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 2, 2013 1:10 pm

    Great report. I have run the Orion series (though admittedly a couple of years ago) and totally agree – they are well organised, friendly and the course through the forest is a great way to chill out after a Spring of training (or in your case injury!). What an incredible time you ran too! I seem to recall that hill being quite tough!

    Oh, and you’re not a proper London runner until you’ve tried the Parliament Hill XC… it hurts like hell, but is brilliant fun. Watch out for more club flags though..!

    • June 2, 2013 6:16 pm

      Thanks! I was pleased with my time, and certainly felt that hill in my legs for the rest of the day. The guy who won must have been doing 5:30 miles the whole way round as he finished in 27:50-something. Pretty impressive!

      Maybe this winter will be my time to give cross country another shot…

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