With two more days of the Tour, we would be returning to the woods for another cross-country leg. On paper, it sounded great because a nice, short race on some soft woodland trails would help our legs to recover before we had to run the longest race, on the final day of the Tour. However, I also knew by then to expect the unexpected and so I once again, sought out the opinion of a Tour veteran. The good news, he told me, was that it really was only 3.2km of a trail lined by pine trees in a pretty forest. But the bad news was that it was the toughest race of the week and consisted almost entirely of several extremely steep climbs followed by some treacherous downhills. I couldn’t help asking why there were so many races in the Tour that were renowned as being the toughest of the week? However, the Tour vet assured me that this race really was the absolute worst and included a climb so steep that it was known as ‘vomit hill’. Well that’s just great, I thought. At least it didn’t sound like there would be any repeats. In any case, I decided that race plan would be similar to that of Day 2: Go slow and just finish.
When I arrived at the woods, I found that I had another reason to follow this strategy as my stomach was a bit on the dodgy side. I knew I didn’t want to literally be running up vomit hill, so the order of day would have to be to take it nice and easy. However, it was clear when I ambled up to the start of the race that there were those with other ideas. As it became abundantly clear to everyone that it was going to be another uphill start, many of the runners started regrouping and manoeuvring themselves into a good starting position. Several runners even set themselves strategically off piste among the ferns, ready to sprint with a clear path. I, however, concentrated on standing somewhere where I could see the ground in front of me as I knew there would be plenty of things to trip up on.
Off we went with the whistle and the mass of runners surged forward while others seemed to spring out from different directions in the trees, like speedy ninjas. As we started to climb, everyone was funnelled together into a narrow trail. It became so congested that I couldn’t see what I running on and could only hope that I wouldn’t stumble over a tree root. The trail started to get even steeper and before long, the bunched runners began to disentangle and space out. The race then turned into a survival of the fittest and the natural climbers ran far into the distance. Like the rest, I struggled on and continued to climb what felt like a never-ending hill. I attempted to up my speed in an effort to finish climbing sooner. However, this only made me feel like I would be creating my own vomit hill and I quickly slowed back to my previous pace of dead slow.
Eventually, I made it to the top of the hill but if I thought that I would get some much-needed relief, I was mistaken. Down we went thundering on steep, uneven trails full of forest debris scattered about, almost inviting a fall. I tried to slow myself down without losing my step as I skidded on pine needles and fallen leaves. But I felt myself speed up again and was nearly knocked over by another runner who careered by, apologetically, but out of control. I somehow managed to regain control of my legs again and made it to the bottom of the hill in one piece, but barely.
The trail levelled off temporarily and I tried to catch my breath before we began another uphill ascent. But the flat was hardly a relief as the trail became uneven and thick with sand. I trudged on still trying to avoid tree roots with a slow and heavy stride. At least I was achieving my aim to take it slowly. It wasn’t long before we approached another hill, which looked even steeper than the last. I knew that my stomach had met its nemesis full-on and I braced myself to begin another climb. Up vomit hiIl, I went, slowly and steadily but at least I wasn’t alone. This hill wasn’t one for overtaking and all eyes were firmly focused down as we shuffled upwards in a long queue of grunting runners. Every now and then a runner abandoned the queue and walked up almost in defiance of the impossibility of the course. I only reached the top because I was so tired that I feared if I stopped, I would tumble downwards, knocking the other runners over, like dominoes.
I tried to catch my breath but before long there was another downhill to contend with. By this time in the race, everyone’s legs were knackered which meant that it was even more difficult to control them. I hurtled down with several other jelly-legged runners at what felt like breakneck speed. I managed to weave around several collisions of other runners who had attempted to slow down by windmilling their arms. I glanced at my watch and saw that we were finally nearing the end of the race. However, as I looked back up, I missed my step and landed awkwardly, twisting my ankle in the process. I tried to ‘run it out’ as I knew that there wasn’t much choice other than continuing on, as it was the shortest route back. I carried on running with a slightly uneven gait until eventually I could hear that the end was near. I ran down the last bumpy descent as slowly as my wobbly legs would allow until I finally crossed the finish line. The relief of being able to stop was almost overwhelming and I completely forgot about my ankle as I began to commiserate with the other runners.
This truly had been the toughest race of the Tour so far and I cannot say that I enjoyed it. But it was also another day under my belt and in the end, I had managed not to christen vomit hill. With one day to go of the Tour and Pretty Muddy in sight, the end of my 7 days of crazy races was approaching.
But now for the recipe and to fuel up for the final days, it has to be more bread! Here’s one of my favourites, Olive bread.