I did the Plod for the first time in 2015 and it very nearly broke me. I’d entered on the day, hadn’t trained anywhere near enough and was suffering with the dreaded ITBS. Despite being in agony from the 12 mile point and spending more time at a walk than a run in the final few miles I bloody loved it. So much so that I’d been checking the website almost obsessively waiting for entries to open & registered as soon as they did. All was good, I thought it would be a great addition to my race calendar & it would be ideal mileage in preparation for my big events over the summer.
Then I received the email from Phil Hoy telling us that it was tougher than it’s ever been.
I arrived early on race day, registering & hanging around the village hall chatting to a few runners I knew before including Carlo (@cvlsfc) who I first met when we both ran the Great South Run 2013 in fancy dress for MNDA. As I do more of these distance trail races in the South I am starting to recognise more & more regular runners and this is nice.
During the briefing Phil went to great lengths to explain just how tough this year’s route was, pointing out that this would not be a PB course so we were better just ensuring we get to the finish adding if we were out of breath on the first 2 climbs we were going to be in trouble. He then led the multi-coloured throngs to the start line on the outskirts of the housing estate and at 10.30am we were off.
A brief descent on the road led us to the first of many big ascents, starting off steep before it flattened out taking a long steady incline over the top of Salt Hill, climbing 364ft in the first mile. I was blowing out of my arse by the time we reached the double back at the top – but at least I hadn’t slipped & pulled a hamstring like one of the other runners I saw. Reaching the road we descended rapidly, I maintained a steady pace but in retrospect I wish I’d gained some time on this section, but this is the price you pay for not knowing the route. Heading into Hen Woods the trail undulated continuously before a short fast descent down to a gate that we had to duck under, jump over or limbo. I opted to duck under before hitting the stretch of road this time taking the opportunity to pick up the pace a little as we descended to Meon Springs, leaving the road to follow the South Downs Way towards Old Winchester Hill and the first (but most definitely not the last) very muddy stretch of the race. A great technical single track preceded a steep but tricky grass descent with fabulous views over field and valley. After following the lumpy field we picked up the road we’d run down earlier heading pack up Salt Hill but taking a steep descent off the side half way across. By this point I had been shadowing a quartet of Hedge End Runners for miles often overtaking on more technical sections or particularly fast descents but then being caught and passed on the flatter parts but we had also now started sharing pleasantries, one of them was an incredibly strong runner and spent the last few miles running back & forth past me.
We now made a further long ascent followed by another steep descent before the route took us up the shoulder of Butser Hill with about 5 miles to go although we descended immediately before reaching the summit, along a chalk path heavily eroded making a fast descent on tired legs difficult. I had now started catching a number of other runners that were obviously struggling for a variety of reasons, many I would accompany for a while having a brief chat before I pulled away. Slowly.
We then hit the more notorious stretch of the race, first struggling along a quagmire that was unavoidable even if I had the strength and will to try anymore. Wading through thick mud that was ankle deep sapped my remaining energy & when we finally escaped this we were directed up a river. This started as a relief, cleaning the heavy sticky mud from my shoes but it became progressively deeper before we again hit pockets of fetid filth coating my footwear in foul & heavy muck.
Reaching a road again was a huge relief, but this was short lived as it soon climbed steeply towards a ridge were I could see runners passing above us in the opposite direction. Finally dragging my tired and sore body to the top of the ascent & over the style I forced myself to run along the ridge until we descended steeply again. Into the mire.
We had been warned about this bit. Repeatedly. I’ve heard other runners whispering in hushed tones about the mud behind the church, but last year the weather had been dry and I it wasn’t a problem. This year it was. Knee deep mud in many places, churned up by all the other runners passing, with hidden rocks and off camber lumps underneath meant staying upright (never mind making progress) was a fight. One I lost, slipping and falling arse over tit into the slime. With half a mile to go this was frustrating but we eventually fought our way through gladly reaching the road and plodding down it to complete the plod.
I passed the line 10 minutes faster more comfortably than the previous year, despite the route being muddier, hillier and a longer than 2015 which shows progress from my recent efforts. It was a brilliant event yet again and reminds me very much of a mini ultra marathon, the camaraderie is great, the checkpoints well stocked and the marshals are superb. Phil Hoy however is a sadist.