I have had this race on my radar for a few years, but never got in on time. This time I had signed up to White Star’s Facebook page and knew when race entry was going live and I was damned well going to be online the second that happened. Never mind that this also clashed with meeting up with an old school friend I hadn’t seen in about 20 years. So, just after having met John on a street in Soho and found a pub I was keenly ignoring him in favour of my phone hoping I had enough 4G to get on the White Star website at 7pm on 29 September. 10 minutes later I was in and I could return my attention to my friend who thankfully was very understanding having been in a similar state trying to enter a favourite sportive.
After I had booked I had a chat with the family about who wanted to come camping to the event and the “fun run” Sydling Bell Race. The kids were keen, so I booked them and me in to that and also booked camping.
This race weekend came two weeks after Endure 24 – my ‘A’ race for the first half of the year and having done 75 miles, I was still definitely in a recovery and rebuilding phase. So, GHM was going to be treated as a marathon fun run. The weather ahead of the weekend looked ideal for spectators, marshals and kids playing in the streams through Sydling village, but on the hot side for runners. Alfred, Elinor and I had packed on Thursday and I got off early from work on Friday to load the car and await their return from school. We set off about 4pm and had a somewhat tortuous journey to Sydling arriving just after 7pm. We left pitching tents until after dinner and headed straight for the village pub, The Greyhound, for a nice meal and pint. With tents up and camp sorted, pitched next to club-mate Lance and his partner Cass, I was in bed by 10:30 with several alarms set for 6am.
With sunrise before 5am it was easy to get up for breakfast in the sunshine of what was going to be a gloriously hot day. Race start was at 8:30am and I had got Alf and Elinor volunteer marshal jobs handing out water to the finishers of the 10k and marathon and helping sort out medals and t-shirts, so I got the kids up to come and collect my race number and find out when and where they needed to be.
I got the rest of my race kit sorted, covered up or covered in sun cream and headed back to the villlage green for a race briefing. The village of Sydling St Nicholas is a beautiful little hamlet of stone and thatched cottages nestled in among chalk hills northwest of Dorchester. Our camp site was a farmer’s field just a few minutes’ walk from the village green and village hall, where the local W.I. and families had put on dinner and breakfast and were hosting a BBQ after the races. The hall was also to be used for a barn dance on Saturday night and there was a well-stocked beer tent also by the village hall. It’s an absolutely perfect set up for a race weekend.
After the race briefing by the village hall most of the runners spread out on the main road but I was far too close to the pointy end of the race, so when the gun went I waited for most of the runners to pass, before inviting Alf and Elinor to run with me to the edge of the village. They left me by the last house and went back to help out at the finish a dn looking back I was almost last with only Danny ‘The Legend’ Kay, a veteran 100 Marathon Club member in his mid 70s who has run over 700 marathons. We chatted for a while as we made our way to the first hill.
Through Huish Farm and not yet 1 mile in and we were climbing the concrete track of Sheerplace Hill, then over and down a long, long gravel track eventually sweeping round a smooth grassy hill, down still along a long lumpy ankle snappy rough path through long grass to Bushes Barn to ring the bell in the steeple and up the second big hill past Jackman’s Cross and the first big views of lush fields of wheat and barley. Just around here I met up with Sandhurst Jogger Andrea and we trotted along chatting about her recent runs (Hampshire Hoppit the previous week!)
Now north and running on the high ridge parallel to our former valley run down from Sheerplace Hill staedily climbing over Crete Hill to mile 5 and on to a chalk path to drop in to the aid station just by Large Bar Hill. A blindingly bright chalk track then past Higher City Farm and here was a problem! The farmer had opened the wrong gate and we were heading along a field edge instead of a track on the other side of the fence at the right hand field boundary, so we missed the right turn. We were lucky that somebody spotted this when we were only 100m past the turn and we went back, but many people ahead of us went wrong and added 1 or 2 bonus miles to their run.
Back on track through a wheat field for our Gladiator moment, although nowadays wheat grows so short you have to stoop for the same effect.
Around mile 8 we descended steeply off Wean Common Hill and rounded a bend to see the Cerne Abbas Giant relaxing in all his splendour on the hillside opposite before tackling Giant Hill itself around 10 miles before the steep descent to Mintern Parva and the lovely sight of another aid station. This one was ably guarded by a small girl with a huge water gun.
Out of Mintern Parva there was another climb (surely just to add some more fun) and soon dropping again to Mintern Magna at 12 miles, East Hill to the west and then we were half way (or maybe not – it’s hard to say with White Star events, they are often generous with the mileage, so let’s say half way-ish). 15 miles and climbing, climbing the long trail up Weather Hill and turning to briefly join the Wessex Ridgeway.
Between 17 and 18 miles passing by Sydling Woods and came up to a woman who had taken a tumble on the hard stony ground a mile or so before and bashed her knees quite badly. She was OK struggling on and was helped along by all the runners coming up to her to check how she was. In fact, at 20 miles, at the Love Station, she came trotting by looking much better, while I was having some tasty snacks washed down with a couple of cups of beer.
Now, 6 miles-ish to go. How many more hills could there be?
Gently down we went skirting around a hill into Up Sydling, another pretty village, and followed Sydling Water, known for it’s watercress farms a bit further downstream. Here we go then. 22 miles and we turned to face the next big beast of Ellston Hill on another blinding white and viciously steep chalk track which felt like being beaten on the sun’s anvil. A mile of climbing back to the Wessex Ridgeway and steady flat trail on the ridge with more glorious views of the valleys and hills around, the hum and buzz of insects. This is fun, but right now it could be more fun sitting back with a cool beer and just watching the cut hay dry in the sun.
Past 25 miles and I was bracing myself for at least 27 miles to finish and then comes Higher City Farm again and there is the little girl with the big water gun again for another cooling blast that I could have done with more of and soon after another aid station. The last one before the end, they said with just one more little nipper of a hill at 26 miles – steep down then steep up – I thought of running it, but could already hear my heart hammering in my ears, so thought better of it. Made it to the top, jogged to the edge of the field and saw a village below me, the now familiar church on the far side and knew I was almost home. Just a flowing and rapid drop off Cowdown Hill, a final chalk track, turn right and then, surprise, there is the village green full of coloured flags and cheering clapping people and a clock that says it’s not quite 6 hours.
I finished with welcome hugs, lots of water and an ice cream with the kids in a shady spot, to cheer in more runners.
Having started plumb last and just tried to manage the heat by running along at a steady pace. I wasn’t expecting anything other than a grand day out, especially having recently done Endure 24. 465 people are listed in the results with all of them finishers. 5:58 brought me home in 135th place. First to last took from 3:13 to 8:23 and I think the person who came in last was doing their first marathon.
The distance? 26.5 miles. Spot on ….ish.