In much the same way as the Eskimos are believed to have a large number of words for snow to allow them to express all its forms, the organisers of the Belvoir Challenge must surely have developed their own extensive vocabulary of words for mud! Over the course of 26 miles on Saturday I certainly think I experienced every form of mud imaginable!
Starting from Harby in Leicestershire and organised by the local primary school, the Belvoir Challenge offers the option of a 26 mile or 15 mile marked route, almost entirely off road through the countryside around Belvoir Castle. As the Chair of a PTA myself, it was fantastic to see the organisation around this event; it seemed the whole community had turned out to marshal, bake cakes or just cheer over 1000 participants on their way.
Start to Checkpoint 1: the one with every type of mud imaginable
There was a strong and cold wind at the start and a bit of persuasion was required to get everyone to leave the warmth of Harby village hall and line up ready for the off; however several tannoy announcements later we were all ready to go on time and it was great to set off through the village and start to warm up. I’m not sure if we were experiencing the end of Storm Doris or the start of Storm Ewan, but it was certainly very windy and there were plenty of trees down on the route which had provided an additional challenge for the organisers.
A short stretch of road to the edge of the village before we turned into the fields and immediately got a taste of the mud for which the Belvoir Challenge is notorious: footpaths across slippery cultivated land, soggy pasture, churned up field boundaries – you name it, this race can provide it! After around 2 miles several of the runners around me were caked in mud having slipped over, while another runner gave us all great entertainment by losing his shoe in a particularly sticky patch, before being unable to gain sufficient balance anywhere to get his shoe back on again. I was glad that I was planning to use this as a training run; there was very little point aiming for a particular time given the conditions, so I settled into a comfortable pace to enjoy the day out.
Soon we met a hard standing track which led to an intermediate water station and then on to the road. As I was carrying my own bottles I had no need of extra water at this point and so carried straight on to a brief road section which took us into the picturesque village of Plungar before joining more muddy footpaths on the far side. We now began to make our way up a very muddy and slippery slope to join the ridge which then runs along to Belvoir Castle. The field was still fairly congested here and quite a queue developed as people very tentatively tried to deal with the slippery mud. I joined a few others picking their way up through some of the dead nettles further along the bank, which not only provided better grip than the muddy path, but also avoided the annoyance of waiting in the queue! Once at the top the views were most certainly worth the climb and we finally joined a good track which allowed for easy running along to Checkpoint (CP) 1 after around 7 miles.
This checkpoint, as with all the others, provided a staggering array of sandwiches and cakes to choose from and I had to remind myself that my stomach would not tolerate many of the delicious looking cakes on offer while running . I did however help myself to a delicious piece of lemon drizzle cake and a handful of jelly babies before heading on.
Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2: the one with the boggy sting in the tail
Immediately after CP1 the two courses split, with the 15 milers staying on the road and the 26 mile course veering left to continue along the escarpment with stunning views. The excellent organisation continued with helpful marshals and plenty of signs to make sure we followed the correct course.
Before long we turned left and enjoyed a lovely run back down the hill on a more gradual path. I enjoyed the run down, but feared (correctly as it turned out) that this could only mean we would be heading back up over this hill before too long. A good path across fields lead us to the foot of Belvoir Castle, with a prime view of the castle all the way, before we headed around the castle following solid tracks and private roads through the Belvoir Estate. We were treated to a lovely view of a secluded boating lake, complete with a very bizarre statue of a frog sitting on a pole and toasting us with a glass of wine!
I was making good progress and starting to think that the mud had disappeared, but I was very wrong! The last half mile to the checkpoint crossed some very boggy fields, the odd deep hole indicating where earlier runners had sunk in, and I was caked in fresh ankle deep mud by the time I reached the checkpoint. There were more fantastic cakes on offer here and I enjoyed a jam tart and another handful of jelly babies, slightly relieved that the steep hill as we left the checkpoint gave me a chance to walk and digest the food before running again!
Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3: the one with the drizzle and THAT field
I followed a pair of female runners out of the checkpoint and would end up yo-yoing backwards and forwards with them most of the way to CP3: they were faster runners than me on the flat, but I would pass them on the uphills or more technical descents. As we reached the top of the hill after the checkpoint, we were treated to a stunning view back across to Belvoir Castle standing proudly on the ridge. From here however, I spent a lot of time with my head down concentrating on the ground! This section provided plenty of tricky muddy ground, with the occasional bog ready to suck you in if you didn’t spot it in time! The wind was getting stronger and colder and a drizzly shower had set in, making progress on the wet ground more difficult.
As we neared the checkpoint at Croxton Kerrial we were required to cross a particularly wet and slippery cultivated field into the headwind and the going got slower and slower… This was followed by a steep climb up a grassy field, before another slippery arable field took us onto the top of the ridge. Here however was a treat to make the muddy climb worthwhile, two red kites soaring on the ridge in a spectacular aerial display. It was very tempting to stop and watch them, but it was cold and I needed to keep moving. I caught up the runner ahead and pointed out the birds and we headed on towards the checkpoint together. She was feeling the cold and struggling a bit, but we enjoyed a good chat as we headed into another pretty Leicestershire village and she seemed to pick up and be going strongly again by the time we reached Checkpoint 3.
Checkpoint 3 to Checkpoint 4: the one with more bogs
As we left the village we had to clamber over a stile to leave the road, before climbing over some electric fencing. A runner already in the field warned to be careful of the electric fence. I wondered what he was on about as the section we had to climb over was covered by insulation. Well, clearly the insulation was not doing its job, as when I pushed down on the insulation to climb over the fence I was thoroughly zapped! Thankfully I was sufficiently far over that my yelp and leap into the air carried me over to the other side before I knew what was happening, but my heart was certainly beating a little faster as I ran down the field on the other side!
This section consisted of fairly muddy undulating tracks, with the odd boggy bit of ground to catch you out if your attention slipped. I was pleased that I was still feeling strong and was catching people in front of me as they slowed. The rain had now stopped, but the ground was fairly wet and I even found one path that had turned into a stream and managed to temporarily wash some of the mud off my trainers (not for long though). The section passed quickly and I soon came into the final checkpoint at 21 miles to be greeted by yet more friendly and encouraging marshals. I decided I was now close enough to the finish to be adventurous in my choice of cake and braved a small piece of rocky road which was delicious and provided a suitable sugar rush to see me through the final few miles!
Checkpoint 4 to the Finish: the one where the mud got really stinky
The marathoners had now joined back up with the 15 mile course and so there were plenty of people about. It was lovely to be cheered on by lots of the 15 mile walkers as we exchanged greetings and super to see lots of fantastic young walkers still going strongly (eleven under 16s completed the 15 mile course). Unfortunately this last section required us to pass through a cattle farm and I decided it was best not to think too much about the now very smelly mud we were running through! We made our way through the edge of Stathern village and then it was just a network of muddy fields to cross to take us back to Harby. I was still feeling strong, but was unable to pick up the pace on the slippery mud. Once in the village there was a great welcome from the marshals and spectators and I speeded up a little to cross the line in 5 hours and 40 minutes. I was pleased to have stuck to my plan of running well within myself and to have finished strongly in a respectable time for the conditions. I made my way into the hall and enjoyed some very welcome soup, followed by cherry crumble and custard which took me back to my own school days!
The Belvoir Challenge is certainly not an event to go looking for a fast time, but is perfect for an enjoyable and challenging day out exploring some lovely and quintessentially English countryside. The organisation is first rate and I think my mud running skills have certainly improved for the experience!