The Lickey Hills (Unofficial) Marathon

The Lickey Hills – my old stomping ground and the setting for my latest adventure.

With over 524 acres of hills, woodland trails and panoramic views over the surrounding countryside, it’s an idea location for a bit of Type 2 fun!

I’ve been running the Lickey Hills religiously for the past 5 years – it’s become a bit of a favourite training ground of mine. During that time, I’d devised a 10k route which, at just shy of 1,000ft of elevation gain, takes in all the key hills and woodland; Bilberry Hill, Rednal Hill, Beacon Hill and Pinfields Woods. The terrain is mostly woodland trails with a short section of road – although at this time of the year sections of the damp woodland trails turn into a mud pit which adds to the enjoyment – deep lugged trail shoes are a must if you want to stay on your feet.

The decision to run a marathon around the hills was very last minute. I’d just learnt that London had been placed into Tier 4 restrictions which meant that it was highly unlikely that my next scheduled race; the ‘Country to Capital Ultra‘ in January would go ahead – although I’d yet to hear an official announcement from the organisers. In my disappointment, I wanted a new adventure and with my love for the Lickey’s, the winter conditions and their close proximity to where I live, four laps seemed like a good challenge.

Despite it being last minute, I’d mentioned it to a couple of friends who both agreed to join me for a few laps – Jasper for laps 1 and 2 – and Maria for laps 3 and 4. I’m content running trails on my own but you can’t beat good company, it’s a godsend – especially over that type of distance and terrain.

The alarm was set for 4am with the intention of hitting the trails by 5am. I’d packed {most} of my kit the night before so managed to shower, grab some breakfast and throw my stuff in the car without waking Ruth or the kids. Result!

Lap 1

We started at a conservative, conversational pace and used the old tried-and-tested ultra mantra of hiking the hills whilst running the flat and downhill sections. I’d never set myself a target time, it was always a time-on-feet exercise. Running under the light of a head torch, there’s something quite eerie and mystical about running through woodlands under the night sky guided only by the small beam of light in front of you. It requires more concentration, the need to focus on the terrain underfoot; avoiding tree roots, deep clay-like mud and other obstacles on the trail – all whilst trying to navigate in deep woodland. With plenty of rain having fallen over the past couple of days, certain sections of the trails had become waterlogged with surface water accumulating at the bottom of the hills and thick, churned up mud covering most of the trails. It was evident early on that the terrain was going to play it’s part and the legs would soon become heavy – although on fresh legs all these factors are what makes my love for trail running.

The rain, as forecast, started to ease and we were eventually greeted with dry, cool conditions – ideal for this time of the year.

Lap 1 complete – 6 miles in the bag. The legs felt ok and other than slight navigational issues in the woods, no major concerns.

Lap 2

We set out for lap 2 in reverse. Although you’re covering the same ground, the trail now offers a different challenge and adds interest – steep inclines now become fast declines and the gentle slopes become long drags, it’s all a mind game. From the offset I’d planned to run alternate laps – it makes loops less monotonous and keeps it interesting – especially the navigation. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve done this route before but given limited visibility in the dark and running on tired legs and mind, it’s so easy to go off-route.

7 miles in and the battery in my head torch is dying – fast. In my rush to get my kit packed the night before, I’d completely forgot about my head-torch and although I was lucky that it was even in my car, it wasn’t fully charged. Luckily, Jasper had spare batteries so problem resolved – although the spare batteries were in the car. As it happens, the route loops back to where we’d parked every 3 miles (it’s a figure of 8 route) so I knew I’d only got 2 miles left before I could replace them – no worries. Running as a pair, we used the beam from Jasper’s head torch when mine eventually packed in. Another gentle reminder to pack a spare set as I’d have been screwed if I’d been on my own! Jasper to the rescue.

Lap 2 complete – 12 miles in the bag. Legs starting to feel tired as the terrain is taking it’s toll. Jasper calls it a day as day breaks and we meet Maria back at the car for the ‘handover’ – or at least that’s how it felt.

Lap 3

Joined by Maria, we’re greeted with a beautiful sunrise through the trees which lifts my spirits as the pace has slowed. The terrain – and the elevation climb – now taking it’s toll but we’re still managing to walk the hills and run the flat sections. My shoes are soaked through so I’m no longer avoiding the big puddles and floods – it’s too exhausting going around them so I’ve resorted to going straight through them. The mud seems to be getting thicker!

The conversation is flowing and I’m thankful for the company as the miles tick themselves off without much drama. Navigation is much easier in the daylight.

Lap 3 complete – 18 miles in the bag.

Lap 4

Before setting off for the final lap, we’d replenished our fluids back at the car and I’d grabbed a quick bite to eat. Having access to supplies every 3 miles meant that my pack was lighter but it also had it’s downfalls – its mentally hard to keep returning to, and leaving your car when you’re mentally and physically exhausted. It’s like running past your house midway through a long run – I’d never recommend it. I’d also planned to use my running poles towards the latter end of the run so I’d left them in the car – but for some unknown reason I decided against using them at the last minute and never attached them to my race vest.

The first mile or so is a steady downhill trail before you reach the foot of Rednal Hill – a short, sharp climb up onto the ridge – I instantly regretted not bringing my poles. For the first time on the run I physically struggled and despite Maria’s encouragement it was hard work. I’d lost the spring in my step. Even up on the ridgeline, I found myself walking more than I was running, much to my annoyance.

The remaining 4 miles of lap 4 were a combination of running and walking – although any inkling of an incline would give me a good reason to walk! The mud was even more churned up with the arrival of the morning dog walkers and seemed to attach itself to my trail shoes like concrete as I struggled to lift my knees in the exhaustion.

Despite this, I was in good spirits and the conversation was flowing. I try not to let the occasion get you down, yes you’re tired, yes you’ve still got miles to grind out but I do these challenges because I enjoy them, nobody forces me to do them. I enjoy the challenge and I enjoy pushing on when the minds telling you to stop.

Lap 4 complete – 24 miles in the bag.

2.2 miles to go.

Solo.

Maria has other commitments so after saying our goodbyes I tried to plot a 2 mile route in my head. There’s a loop from the Visitor Centre to the top carpark, it’s a loop I’ve done on numerous occasions to make up the miles on previous runs but it’s hilly. I’m in the Lickey Hills, it’s all hilly! Off I trot.

I don’t remember it being this hilly! I resort to walking for most of it but I’m trying to convince myself to run, the more I run the faster these 2 miles will be over. I’ve also chosen the muddiest of trails – thick clay-like mud that squelches as you lift your feet out of it. I stop for a selfie. I’m not sure I want a selfie – I just want a reason to stop!

Loop done and I’m back at the Visitor Centre. 24.8 miles on the watch – less than a mile done. FFS!

Smile.

I can’t bring myself to do another lap so I resort to running circles of the Visitor Centre and the children’s playground. It’s probably a 0.4 mile loop – down to the playground, around the perimeter and then back up to the Visitor Centre. It’s hilly but I’m passed caring, I just want to finish without feeling like I’m running away from the car.

3 laps done and the slow run back to the car.

26.95 miles done in 5:38 with over 4,100ft of elevation.

It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty but I’d done it.

Massive thanks to Jasper and Maria for running / supporting me – I’m not convinced I wouldn’t have bailed out earlier if you hadn’t been with me – thank you!

One thought on “The Lickey Hills (Unofficial) Marathon

  1. I loved this bit: “Iā€™m not sure I want a selfie ā€“ I just want a reason to stop!” – so true of so many of us in so many adventures. Well done, having done your route before just the once in the dry, that’s epic!

    Liked by 2 people

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