When you find yourself shoulder deep in a very long muddy puddle on an army training camp in England in the middle of January you might think it’s time to question your choices in life, but, oddly, I was really enjoying myself.
Hellrunner advertises itself as “tougher than Tough Mudder, grimmer than the Grim”, and whilst I’ve never actually taken part in either of those other races, I have now had the tremendous pleasure of completing Hellrunner a slightly barmy five times.
It’s a very different beast from Tough Mudder, which just comes across to me as an unnecessarily expensive obstacle course with very successful branding. Hellrunner’s been around for longer (I did my first in 2005) and consists of an incredibly tough 10 to 12-mile trail run with added devilish touches: the Hills of Hell, Satan’s Lido and the infamous Bog of Doom—a more natural form of torture.
They changed the course for 2017, announcing at the start it would be the shortest but toughest yet.
A little later than advertised and without the clouds of red smoke from previous years, our first wave was off, navigating the initial still-frosty puddles. The early ones separate the men from the boys as people either pussy foot around them, or wade straight through. You will get wet and muddy, so why delay the inevitable?
The changes to the course allowed the field to spread out better than in previous years, and I looked on fondly (well, almost) as we passed the sand dunes that they used to knobble you with just as you thought you were reaching the end.
The first few miles were actually quite pleasant regular cross-country fare, and I was a bit worried they’d made it tamer than I remembered. Thankfully, that wasn’t to be the case. It’s amazing what your mind will block out though, I’ve always remembered the mud, obviously because there’s usually physical evidence of that; however, what I had seemingly partitioned away somewhere else in my brain, probably behind cute images of cats, was the hills. Those memories only started flooding back as we met the early hills, very steep nasty little inclines, which at first I ran up, my New Balance Minimus being perfect for digging in and swiftly finding footholds. Later, I was just pleased to be able to push on up them at walking pace and using the power of my arms to press down on my absurdly fatigued thighs.
Another lingering memory was the fact that if you can hear music, you must be approaching something evil. About six miles in, a boggy section appeared, not the fabled Bog of Doom, but an additional, long, crotch-high patch of slippery, wet loveliness. We bunched up a little at this point because people were trying to skirt around the edge and get less wet and filthy, or just hoping the ground had more traction there, perhaps. I did my best to wade through, past some yelping woman who threatened to pull everyone else down with her flailing. All this was undertaken as a robust-looking chap heckled us from the edge. He wanted entertaining, he shouted. I could have recommended getting in and getting dirty, I was definitely being entertained.
My memory is slightly hazy of the middle bit, I think some sort of disco water tent appeared between the first of the real mud and the water feature: Satan’s Lido (chest-deep cold water, great for washing the mud off). There was a young, male competitor doing a fairly impressive running man dance step as he took his water bottle from one of the many army cadets who were helping to marshal in the tent.
I slid down into Satan’s Lido on my bum, with a, if you just get in there and try to do it as fast as possible, it won’t be that bad, kind of attitude. As I emerged on the other side, the music blared out something about a sexy woman, obviously they had seen me coming!
At another point, I came over a hill, out of some woodland and into glorious winter sunshine. The sun’s rays were beaming down on the expansive view of a valley that had opened up at the side of the trail and it was just lovely. I even felt moderately warm, although that could have been mild hypothermia setting in.
Although the trail meandered through some beautiful bits of woodland, we didn’t get a moment to enjoy it as we were constantly punished with a relentless array of steep hills, one after another after another, for what felt like miles—the sting in the tail?
Finally, I approached the Bog of Doom, just as MC Hammer’s “You can’t touch this” started playing. I high-fived a couple of marshals who were seeing you in and embraced the legendary bog. It actually didn’t feel too bad, all that sea swimming off the south coast must finally be toughening me up.
To the amusement of the safety bloke, my initial quite shallow wading suddenly dropped down to shoulder height and a big gloop of mud shot up into my face. I gave him a cheesy and frankly now very mucky grin to show him I was ok and still game for the challenge, and on I waded. Someone attacked us with a smoke machine, billowing smoke across the bog, whilst I debated whether swimming might be a better option.
When I finally emerged, like some kind of 1950s swamp monster, with only two patches on the tops of my shoulders still clean, it was thankfully just a final brief schlep to the end.
Hellrunner is a great trail race. Tough, and not for the faint hearted, it offers a good couple of hours of intense exercise that’ll leave the serotonin-addicted with plenty to crow about. I loved it, and would happily sign up for a sixth!