*** In the summer of 2018 I ran the Serpent Trail 100 event. Shortly afterwards I wrote a blog. possibly my favourite personal bit of writing to date. At some point later in the year I noticed the blog had vanished. WordPress claim it was deleted and unrecoverable. I sobbed a little. Over the months since I’ve tried to recreate it. It isn’t the same, it is no longer an original thought. It is merely an attempt at remembering what I wrote in 2018 and preserving my memory for old age. Either way, here it is…. ***
The Serpent Trail. A serious of footpaths and routes weaving through West Sussex. Aptly named from the slithering shape it creates from Haslemere to Petersfield (and that it is a habitat to British species of snake). The 64mile path is home to a small (but growing!), local-ish race from Tom and the team at Freedom Racing. I just couldn’t say no to giving it a go. It would be good training for my upcoming CCC adventure.
I headed down after work on Friday where I planned to camp the night before the race. The organisers had arranged for a shuttle bus service to take us from the campsite at the finish line to the start in Haslemere. Nice and easy. After checking in and registering with a lovely friendly welcome, setting up tent and collecting my bib and dib-dab tracker whatsit I went to bed. It would be an early start with the bus leaving at 5am.
I chatted to a few other tired runners on the bus and tried to get a little more shut eye in before I really had to wake up. A long day lay in wait. Arriving in Haslemere we walked to the start, hidden behind a pub and, just like that, we were off. A sort of rolling start began as we all just began running. Finding our stride, heading out on to the Serpent Trail we were off!
The early mile or two confirmed a few thoughts I’d had. My mind was in overdrive. The day was still very young. We’d not yet covered but a few miles and I could sense the challenge ahead. It was the height of summer. A warm one at that. The Serpent would become my nemesis. My opponent. The challenger I’d have to overcome. I recalled the computer games of my childhood. The early 90s. It reminded me of the platformers and the ‘beat em ups’. Player 1 vs the The Serpent Trail. I was in control.
Within barely a few miles I heard my name called out. I turned to meet the warm smile of Ally. We shared mutual friends. We’d never met but we’d been told about each other running. We ran and chatted and soon found out we were neighbours!
The sun had started to come out and the early morn was breaking. We celebrated the warmth of the daybreak by getting lost. Not alone though. Others followed us. Somehow we were tracking back the way we came. Ally felt familiarity in the route. She recalled a gate we went through. I wasn’t so sure until a little further along when I noticed a trail sign on the bottom of a tree. It was a weird place to put one and I’d spotted it first time we passed. We back tracked and were soon on the right path again. Joking with the camera man we saw for a second time.
The first aid station was soon a welcome sight. Today they would be spread out over a decreasing distance as we closed in on the finish. The first was ten miles in. We didn’t stay long. We grabbed some stuff and carried straight on. Passing through we saw a runner who’d already lost his battle to the Serpent. His head was wrapped in a bloody bandage. Sights like this often fill me with fear when running. Accidents can happen and when they do they can be pretty bad. The Serpent clearly had his tricks to try and win the battle.
Ally and I ran together for a fair few miles before eventually we went our separate ways. We promised not to get lost again. I broke that promise almost immediately. Before too long I was coming up behind Ally once more as we ran along a road section. I don’t know how it happened. But I could feel the draining effect it had. The Serpent sapping my energy with his mind games. I’d have to focus more. I couldn’t afford to keep getting lost. In the heat any extra distance I covered would mean the Serpent would pound me down and win this battle. Not today I thought. Not today.
Moving on, for the second time that morning I waved goodbye to Ally. We planned to meet again at the finish as she kindly offered me a lift back. That would be better than spending a second night sleeping in a field. The second checkpoint was a welcome relief. The sun was in a prominent position in the sky now. Whilst I chatted to the volunteers Ally rocked up. We were allowed drop bags at this checkpoint and Ally was well prepared. She’d frozen isotonic drinks in her softflasks and put ice packs in her drop bag to keep them cool. Genius. I was a little jealous. Well played Ally! Immediately after setting back out I was lost again. Somehow I’d missed a turn and was running alongside a field of sheep. They were noisily bleeping and leaping all over the place. Perhaps trying to tell me that I’d fucked up and gone wrong, again.
Back on track I thought about the battle. I thought about those videogames I used to play. Each character had their special skills, their power moves and weaknesses. I was starting to understand what I was up against in my opponent. The Serpent’s main weapon in the battle was the path itself. The terrain. The path would twist and turn. It would vary from forest paths, to dirt tracks, to rooty-tree lined tracks, sandy hills and occasional roads. As soon as you’d get accustomed to running on one surface, the bastard would switch it up. Thankfully the hilliest sections were in the first half of the course. But I could use this to my advantage – with hills come viewpoints. With winding paths come alternative views. The course was scenic and I’d use this to my benefit and enjoy whatever was presented to me.
Sometimes though the terrain was tough. There was one particularly fruity climb just before the third checkpoint. The Serpent was throwing it down to us. Challenging us. Taunting us. Reaching the top I was dripping with sweat. I took the chance to replenish my energy and I spent a little while at the aid station – joking with the volunteer and cheering through other runners making sure they dabbed in. He offered me a job. I declined and set back out. It was hot. Morning had become midday. The sun was scorching.
I realised the Serpent was a sneaky opponent. He was one of those with the ability to call in allies. Collectively I came to think of these as an ‘army of bastards’. One of which was the Bastard Prick of a Sun. The Sun, although limited in duration, was unreachable. I couldn’t attack it. I could only avoid it. The Bastard Prick of a Sun rained down its relentless rays of heat, pounding the runners and terrain alike. This was a UK heatwave. Nothing sapped my energy more than the sun this day. I could only avoid it when the terrain gave me refuge in the forests and shade of trees. I weaved and dodged all day long finding those rest bites, those shaded tracks. If I could get to the evening, its power would vanish and I’d come through on top. Hours away though. In the meantime water and shade were my friends.
The Serpent wasn’t the only one bringing support to the fight though. I had the camaraderie of other runners. I often thought of Ally and I chatted away with others as and when I could. In addition there were the volunteers. The checkpoints were the friendliest I’d ever encountered. A real family feel. Each one you were welcomed into and cheered out of. I’d use this camaraderie to see me through the battle.
Before I knew it the Serpent upped his game. In the height of the midday sun, whilst the Bastard Prick of a Sun was showering me with heat, the Serpent lay down a gauntlet of confusing paths and sandy hills. It was tough. I went wrong multiple times. I was trying to interpret the signage of the Serpent Trail that were all ambiguously positioned. They could have been pointing down one of many routes. I had a gpx file but signal was poor and it often took too long to correct the course. Many times I chose wrong. Many times I extended my run and depleted my energy supplies. On one occasion I met another of the Serpents bastard army – Spikey Foilage. Running full steam into an overgrown path I ended up being shredded by spikes from Bastard Foliage. Damn. I was weakening. I needed to get back in this battle. The midday sun was blistering and my heart sank as realised I’d gone wrong yet again and had to retrace my steps uphill and once more through the Spikey Bastard. My legs were screaming from what felt like a thousand cuts. I was out in the open, running more sandy paths with little shade. My throat was dry and water wasn’t quenching my first. I carried on and used my wits were I could – My brain would be my biggest strength. Determination and stubbornness to repel the Serpent’s attacks. I’d run when I could, sticking to the shade and minimising the time I spent exposed to the sun. When exposed, I’d be sensible and walk in the sun to avoid overexertion.
Earlier than expected another checkpoint appeared in the distance. There was a tent. That meant shade. This was the best one. Exactly what I needed. It was full of friendly support , all the volunteers were Tom’s family. His mum and his sister were there and they were great and lifted my spirits and prevented me from succumbing to the beating I’d been taking. One of them offered me a cold wet towel to cool off. Lots of ice and food was available and I took as much as I could. Like in Streets of Rage and eating a chicken found in a dustbin my energy levels were restored, the health bar refilled. The red turned to green. I was jubilant. I was back in the fight. I was on top now and ready to press forward and attack The Serpent.
The second wind was embraced and I ran and ran. As the miles counted down I wondered what the football scores were. It was the World Cup and England were playing Sweden. For the earlier games, the aid stations had been updating scores on their welcome/sandwich boards. It was good to follow the changes each stop and see how they finished. As I ran I started to realise I’d been running solo for quite sometime now. I couldn’t remember the last runner I’d encountered. I hadn’t been passed either and started to wonder what my position might be. I was expecting a checkpoint but it didn’t come. My water was running low and my feet were starting to ache. I ran passed a pub and there was a lot of noise from live music and the football. Soon after the checkpoint finally came into sight. There were two other runners there. A lady just leaving as I arrived and a man relaxing in a chair. I joined him. I tended to my feet, ate some food and drank back lots of coke. I don’t know how many cups I had. I could have stayed there for a long time. I was happy and getting comfortable too.
As I rested, another runner came in to he checkpoint. Shit, I am being caught. He was jovial. He joked he was done, he wanted to quit, he wanted the bus home. Only he wasn’t joking. He told us he’d spent the last hour in the pub watching the football and eating fish and chips. We all laughed and I was a little pleased I hadn’t been caught after all. I decided to get up and go. Time to end this battle and get it done.
Along the next section I started to meet runners from the 50km race. They were full of spirit and support. I chatted to a few and we exchanged encouragements. We were all sensing the end of the battle now. A little while later, enjoying yet another second wind, I could hear footsteps behind me. It was the runner who quit. What the fuck. We chatted as we walked on. He explained he was told it would be about an hour to wait for the bus and with just about 10km left he felt he might as well walk it in. Only he wasn’t walking, he was running and running strong! I let him go ahead. I was impressed. Although if he’d been in the pub for an hour before I caught him he was clearly a strong runner!
I carried on in my own world. For the last section I’d put my music on. An extra weapon to fight the Serpent and distract my mind. My own boost and distraction. The Bastard Sun had faded and I was winning the battle. After exchanging attacks all day the Serpent was slowly coming to an end. I came upon the last water checkpoint and grabbed some more coke. The sole volunteer cheered me in and urged me on. The next guy wasn’t far ahead he told me. He insisted I could make the top ten if I beat him. I laughed and explained he’d just overtaken me after being in a pub for an hour. “Oh” he said. I cracked on anyway. I was ready to finish.
Not long after leaving the checkpoint, in a field of lush green grass, I could see him. I could see the runner. He wasn’t alone though, he was with the woman I saw at the checkpoint and I could see they were walking. I caught them and had another brief chat. It turns out she was the leading female. Amazing! I carried on. I felt invigorated knowing that keeping ahead of them could put me in the top ten (if I trusted the volunteer’s counting skills that is!). Soon I came upon some more 50 km runners. I followed them as they navigated some fields. I’d switched off and wasn’t concentrating. They went wrong. So I went wrong. Dammit. I was running strong now and this annoyed me. The leading female and ‘pub runner’ we approaching behind. They were also running again. I could sense the finish though and soon we left the trails. We were back in Petersfield. I knew I was close as we emerged onto some roads I recognised from my walk from the train station the night before. But we ran passed the turning, we were running away from the finish and taking the long way, looping around the finish line via some riverside paths through some woodlands. I was still running. I wanted this. Finish strong is my mantra. The Serpent needed one last attack to be defeated so I pushed hard. I broke free of the trees and the darkness that was starting to fall, I burst up into the field and the finish line was in sight. The volunteers rang the bells and whooped me home. Shouts of “runner” triggered some lots of clapping from the crowd at the finish. The Serpent fell in front of me to the screams (in my head) of “finish him”. I floated across the line with a finisher smile beaming across my face. Player 1 wins!
As I was going to stick around and wait for a lift back with Ally I had a bit of time to spare. I showered and packed my stuff up. I grabbed some buffet food on offer and talked for quite sometime to the medics and photographer whilst I waited. It was fascinating to get an insight into what an ultra involves for them and certainly to appreciate all the hardwork that goes into supporting such an event. A few hours later Ally arrived and we were soon in the car heading back to reality. The Serpent Trail had been defeated. We both emerged victorious from our battles.