The Bluebell Challenge is organised by Big Bear Events and challenges you to run as many 2.9 mile laps as you can muster within a 6-hour time limit.
I’d come across this event fairly last minute via social media and the ‘lapped format’ immediately caught my attention. Held in the grounds of Hartshill Hayes Country Park – a relatively short drive away – I’d decided to give it a go and added my name to the waiting list. Within a couple of days I got notified of a place becoming available and I was in.
The course is predominantly woodland trail and is described as ‘lumpy’ – which in simple terms means hilly.
With over 450ft of elevation per lap, an average marathon distance would take in 4,000ft of elevation – or the equivalent of climbing Snowdon. As such, the course record is set at 34.6 miles, which for a 6 hour event shows how challenging the route is.
Race numbers and timing chips were collected on the morning of registration. There had been a slight course change due to some repair works on the infamous ‘steps from hell’ but the re-route didn’t seem to affect the course in terms of distance too much. After a short and relaxed race brief, all 73 participants – running anything from 5k to ultra distance – were sent on their way.
Lap 1 – 2.9 miles – “well, this should be fun…”
I’d settled into a comfortable pace, trying to ensure I didn’t repeat the same mistakes as I did at the Millennium Way Ultra a few weeks back, where I’d set off too fast and burnt out – effectively ensuring my race was over by the half way stage. I was determined for this not to happen again.
The first mile is a small loop on hard packed trails, with a steady downhill section before you reach the first main climb of the day. It felt like the Lickey Hills on steroids – it was tough on fresh legs but knowing it would become increasingly harder throughout the day was a sobering thought. The second mile was predominantly downhill, mainly on single-file, technical woodland tracks as you wind your way down through the forest, dodging low hanging branches and leaping over tree roots – whilst being completely surrounded by bluebells. It was stunning and my favourite section of the route. The final mile was a gradual climb back up to the start/finish area which felt like a bit of a slog, although the scenery certainly made up for it. Overall, it was a great route which had enough elements to kept you engaged, reassuringly so due to the repetitive nature of the event.
Lap 2 – 5.8 miles – “this route has it all…”
The crowd had thinned by the second lap and I found myself running alone for large sections. In all honesty, I preferred it. I got lost in my thoughts as I took in the scenery and started to enjoy the challenging aspects of the terrain.
Lap 3 – 8.7 miles – “I’m (not) gonna win this thing…”
I’d made a plan prior to the race that I’d fuel and hydrate after every third lap. You had to check-in at the end of each lap and whilst everyone else appeared to be hanging around the bag drop area, I’d turn straight around and start the next lap. I made up a lot of places with this strategy and felt that refueling every 9ish miles was manageable. With so many runners and varying race strategies, you had no idea where you were in terms of the competition, although everyone appeared to be running well, irrespective of the number of laps they’d completed thus far. It was a strong field.
Lap 4 – 11.6 miles – “refreshed, refueled and raring to go…”
I took 5 minutes at the end of lap 3 to take some fuel on board and get hydrated. I still felt strong and was running well within myself – fast hiking the hills whilst maintaining a steady pace on the trails. I’d got chatting to several runners in passing, which help break up the repetition as by lap 4 I felt like I knew every turn, tree root and hill the course had to offer.
Lap 5 – 14.5 miles – “smile, at least you’re not at work!”
The majority of the course was runnable, albeit at a conservative pace as the prospect of running for the full 6 hours plays at the back of your mind. You have to keep reminding yourself to slow down and not burn yourself out too early.
By now, the cool morning breeze had now disappeared and the sun was breaking through the clouds. It was warm and muggy and I could feel myself overheating. I knew I had a change of shirt and running cap at the bag drop area and although the temptation was there to nip in at the end of the lap, I maintained my strategy and headed straight out for lap 6.
Lap 6 – 17 miles – “dehydrated and overheating!
I spent most of lap 6 regretting my decision not to take 5 minutes at the bag drop. In hindsight, 5 minutes wouldn’t have made much difference to my race but I was determined to stick to my plan. I struggled for the first time on this lap, 14+ miles in and I found myself walking sections I’d previously been running. I wasn’t too disheartened, a little frustrated maybe – but I knew some fluids and a change of kit would have a positive impact.
Lap 7 – 19.9 miles – “the wheels are starting to fall off…”
I felt revitalised starting lap 7…but it didn’t last long.
I’d took some fuel on board, hydrated, changed my shirt and grabbed my sun cap. I was ready to run again…or at least I thought I was. All was fine until I reached the first incline where I felt my energy levels just deplete themselves! I had nothing in me and had to dig deep to get to the top. I managed a slow jog for the second mile and ran/walked the remaining mile to get back to camp, feeling rather beaten up.
Lap 8 – 22.8 miles – “blowing out my arse!”
Again, I should have stopped at camp – regrouped, took some fuel on board etc – but I never, I checked-in before immediately turning around and headed out for lap 8. This was a slow and painful lap. The hills felt like mountains and although I still felt strong walking, I kept reminding myself that I was there to run – not walk. I just had no energy to run. Everyone around me, (with the exception of a few who had already lapped me at this stage and were still going strong) was in the same boat – and trying to motivate yourself to run when everyone else is walking is tough. The only positive was that my walking pace was faster than most so I found myself overtaking rather than being overtaken. I couldn’t wait for the lap to end.
Lap 9 – 25.7 miles – “battling with the math…”
I went against my race strategy and took 5 minutes at the end of lap 8 to regroup.
Runners ‘brain-fog’ is a thing! Trying to work out min/mile splits and timings on tired legs and tired mind is difficult – well, at least it is to me anyway. I knew that if I got to the start/finish area before 3pm then I’d be allowed to complete one more lap. I’d been slowing down considerably throughout the day – the walking sections growing increasingly longer and my overall pace on the running sections had slowed dramatically due to the technical nature of the trail on tired legs. You become less aware of tripping hazards and you tend to drag your feet more when you lose your running form.
At this stage I had no idea how long it was taking me to complete each lap. I was trying to work out mentally how much time I’d need to leave myself for lap 10 as despite how tired I felt, I knew I wanted to complete 11 laps.
Lap 10 – 28.6 miles – “running against the clock…”
Strangely enough, this was one of my favourite laps. I knew I was against the clock. I’d completed lap 9 at 2.20pm – therefore I’d have to complete the lap within 40 minutes to be allowed back out for one final lap – and take my overall distance to 32 miles. I dug deep – probably for the only time in the race – and got back to the start line at 2.50pm. It was probably my fastest lap despite having 28 miles and 4,600ft of elevation in the legs. Up until now, my overall position in the race was unclear – and not of any relevance – my only goal now was to exceed 30+ miles for the day.
Lap 11 – 32 miles – “f’ck it, this is a victory lap and I’m (mostly) walking…or maybe not”
It was a relief to get back to camp with ten minutes to spare – and I was surprised at how well I’d run lap 10 given the distance already in the legs. I took some time to refuel and gather my thoughts before heading out for the final lap.
With no cut-offs to meet, I felt instantly relaxed now that the pressure had lifted. Bar breaking my leg (or worse), I’d get the lap complete – whether that took me 30 minutes or an hour. I was passed caring. I intended to enjoy the final lap – take some pictures and soak up the views for one last time – even that bloody hill again!
I’m not sure how but I found a second wind after conquering that last hill and despite stopping to take a couple of pictures, I pretty much ran the remainder of the lap and had mixed emotions crossing the finish line – half of me wanted to go back out for another lap! This feeling soon passed when the finishers bell was rung and I was handed a medal, a bottle of beer and some home-made flapjack.
What a day!
I finished in 13th position out of 73 runners – with 11 complete laps / 32 miles. The winner completed 13 laps covering 38.4 miles. Incredible! (and a new course record!)
I can’t praise this event enough – everyone, from the organisers to the marshals, and my fellow runners – with a lapped format event you get to see the same people on numerous occasions and every time you’re made to feel welcome – no matter what distance you’ve achieved. The race is a credit to everyone involved.
Big Bear Events – check their website out and give one of their events a go!