I had been looking forward to this event for a while, having heard all the hype about the cake. After Hebden 15, I’ll be honest, I was expecting it to be a doddle, and almost contemplated signing up for the full 26 mile distance, but ever the cautious one, I decided to be sensible and stick to the marathon training plan, so opted for the 15 mile route.

To keep my marathon training interesting this year, I booked in a monthly long trail race – a way of escaping the monotony of the road, and having a focus each month because a marathon can feel a very long time training. With 5 weeks until Manchester, I felt ready for the Belvoir* Challenge.

The day dawned cloudy and windy, with a forecast of heavy rain around midday. Perfect cross country running weather, non? I arrived at Harby village hall at around 7:45am. The race wasn’t due to start until 9, but I wanted ample time for finding a car parking space and some pre-race preparations, which in this case involved eating a banana, drinking a hot chocolate, queueing up twice for a wee, and finding people who had done this event before to check it was easy to navigate and I wouldn’t get lost. Registration to collect numbers was a smooth process – desks were in alphabetical order according to what distance you were running, so there was no queueing. There were also plenty of portaloos available, although inevitably there are always queues for these before a race.

I was doing this event on my own, rather than with a buddy. Although I knew there were a couple of fellow club runners tackling the marathon distance, I wasn’t expecting to run with anyone. I felt a little out of my comfort zone actually. I had packed the map that was given out at registration, but it was small scale, so I’m not sure how much use it would have been, but it eased my nerves a little.

At 9am, the 1200 runners were set off! We ran down a road, around a corner, onto a field, and straight into a slippery mudbath. The event is billed as a cross country event, and the sticky, slippery mud was to be a recurring feature of the day. The route changes every year, so I’m not sure how much mud is usually involved, but this was pretty special – feet disappearing regularly into watery bogs and thick, oozy mud. It was actually really tough to run on without slipping over so I found myself slowing down a lot and walking at times.

I had been led to believe there was a pretty steep slope before the first checkpoint to get up onto the ridge where the castle is, and as we entered the woods I could see a gentle slope rising into the distance. That doesn’t look too bad, I said to the lady next to me, perhaps a little prematurely. As we reached the top of the false summit, and looked upwards into the heavens, necessitating a full head tilt to see skyward, we could see the actual slope rising into, I’m not sure, giant land perhaps. It looked very high. And very steep. I could just make out spots of colourful neon snaking up it slowly.

And so our ascent began. The mud was slippery, with a little bit of undergrowth for grip, and there wasn’t much to hold onto apart from spiky brambles so staying upright was a challenge, and a great core workout. I was giggling hysterically on the way up, because it was once again a ridiculous thing to be doing on a Saturday morning (why do I keep signing up for things like this? Oh yes, because they’re fun.)

I made it to the top with mud on my hands, which then of course goes all over your face as you wipe sweat out of your eyes. Delightful creatures, we trail runners, aren’t we? The view over the Vale took my breath away then, then there was a short, flat, run to the checkpoint.

Let me talk about the checkpoints. Water, juice, tea, coffee, sandwiches, flapjack, brownie, cookies, sponge cake, carrot cake, cupcakes, savoury scones, Stilton, bananas, Mars Bars, jelly babies, chocolate cake, [add in your own], ad infinitum – they were incredible. All staffed by volunteers who could not have been more helpful. They were lovely. If I have one regret about the day, it’s that I missed the two checkpoints on the full route because I opted for the 15 mile event.

So with a belly full of tea and sandwiches and cake, a Mars Bar in my pocket, and my water bottles refilled, I followed the arrows for the 15 mile route as the two routes separated from here, and I headed downhill again (hooray?) into the most beautiful green valley. I love running on grass, and this made a welcome change from the sticky, gloopy mud. It was only 3 miles to the next checkpoint, where I could eventually wash my hands, and stuff my face with more cake and a cup of tea.

5 miles to go and we were back on mud again. The rain also started as the wind picked up, so I really didn’t enjoy the section between around 11 and 13 miles, but I got my head down and got on with it. 

I feel like we shouldn’t be afraid of the low moments during a run – to me they’re an important part of training to recognise, and they build character and mental strength. We simply need to ask why we’re finding it tough. For me personally, my legs were feeling tired after running 10 miles through mud, so I accepted it and got through it.

I eventually made it back to the village hall at Harby in 3 hours 28 minutes (total moving time 2:55, so I did spend a lot of time at checkpoints). The numbers had timing chips on them, so as soon as you crossed the mat, you could type your name into one of 3 computers and see your exact finishing time. Time wasn’t at all important to me yesterday, it just can’t be on that kind of cross country terrain, although there were some runners posting incredible times. For me it was simply good time on feet to train for that marathon and the upcoming ultra. I then filled up on a bowl of soup, but turned down the array of desserts which included crumble, sponge pudding and a few other options. I was full of cake.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Had I not had an upcoming marathon, and 21 miler coming up soon, I would have done the whole distance and made a full day of it. It’s a cracking event, superbly organised, and impeccably route marked with clear signage. And the checkpoints are worth the entry fee alone (which is £15 by the way – bargain!) There’s no medal, but you can print a certificate off the website, and I bought a souvenir mug and T-shirt. All profits are to the local school, and many of the staff and parents volunteer at the event and bake the cakes and make the sandwiches.

I’ll be doing more of these type of events. I can certainly see why this one sells out every year.

*For those uninitiated in Leicestershire ways, Belvoir is pronounced ‘beaver’ in this instance. Wikipedia tells me the name, meaning beautiful view in French (and it is), is indeed a Norman import but our native population was unable to pronounce it as French, so settled on Beaver Castle.