Beast Report

The Number of The Beast

beast-logo‘So was it hilly?’ asked my father, on a video call from Nevada. I had just explained that The Beast of Bitterley included over one thousand foot of ascent within the first two miles. I noticed a familiar high-pitched whine, which I took to be feedback from his hearing aid, and perhaps he was sitting too close to the microphone or something. Maybe at that time on a Sunday afternoon, the volume of internet traffic results in poor sound quality – broken sentences and annoying background noise. Suffice it to say that yes, Dad, it was hilly. Or perhaps more accurately, hill as let’s face it, we’re only talking about the one: Titterstone Clee, to give it its proper name – although I’m sure I was not alone in brainstorming various alternatives – none of which are repeatable – as I scrambled, clawed, and panted my way up the bloody thing.

Having failed to register in advance, I arrived at Bitterley Village Hall in plenty of time, and was delighted with the buzz of activity as I entered the building. It’s always a challenge getting a new event off the ground but I could tell instantly that we were going to have a very respectable entry. The weather was spot on too – warm with a gentle breeze and a decent amount of cloud cover. Those in the know were still wondering – even in June – what the conditions would be up top as it’s not uncommon to be sweating wearing nothing but a club vest in the village, and reach the summit wishing you’d brought thermal pants and a bobble hat. Given that this was a race though, none of us were intending to be up there for long – and as we lined up for the start everyone threw caution to the wind, along with compression tops and trackie bottoms.


Up, up and away!

Our Chairman Sandy Ross, who gave the pre-race briefing, was (unlike many race organisers), very able to make himself heard above all the excitement…and dread. So, after a quick ‘three, two one’ we were off, bang on time, along one of the few flat stretches of the race – about one hundred metres of a narrow lane – before turning left and up, up, up into the countryside.

The field, by which I mean the group of race entrants rather than all the green stuff, was a veritable sea of blue and white. Relieved of the usual marshaling duties by parents of children at Bitterley School & Pre-School, club members had turned out in force – from new runners brave enough to face such a challenging event, to old stagers like Russell Mapp who view the Clees as soppy puppies rather than vicious old dogs. It was good to see him competing again after a fairly lengthy absence.  However, over half of the runners were either from other clubs (as far afield as Bridgnorth) or unattached participants. On turnout alone then, the event could be deemed a success.

On a cold, wet training run up on the Kerry Ridgeway a couple of years ago, John Lyden (not at his fittest) Giantcoined a description that has stuck in my mind ever since. As we approached the most brutal climb of the day (mile 12 or thereabouts) he muttered, grim faced, that he intended to ‘chug up this one’.  I had settled on the same approach to The Beast but as ever, struggled to control the urge to charge off at the start. I still panic if I lose touch with competitors I feel I should beat – even when I know they’re going to expire half way round – but the secret, I find, is to stick to your own plan no matter what’s going on around you. Not a bad rule for life in general I guess – but I’m on the verge of getting philosophical, and there was no time for that on Sunday – even as we queued at one of the two bottleneck stiles within the first half-mile. Those able to perform an imaginary brainectomy, leave their frontal lobe in the car boot, and just press on, definitely had the psychological edge.


Dale Williams all the way from Brecon

The leaders, including eventual winner Jamie Shingler were already a clear two hundred metres ahead and I knew I wouldn’t see any more of them until the finish. Rumour had it that Jamie had been practising, and given that his strategy, even on a gentle training run, is to attack the hill like some fictional hybrid creature somewhere between a goat and a kangaroo, his competitors had cause to be afraid. Further back, but putting in very creditable performances were Rhys Jones and Amy Fulford. These two represent the cream of our new membership and Amy will be a medal challenger in the summer cross country series, I’m sure. And what about Iain Prentice? I always hope in vain that his penchant for stupidmile ultra iron events will take the edge off his speed in the shorter ones, but this seldom turns out to be the case. I was holding on, distantly, during the ascent but by the time I reached the top he had disappeared, eventually finishing in twelfth place a good two and a half minutes in front.


Race Winner Jamie Shingler

I continued my ‘chug’ and was somewhat frustrated when a glance behind me revealed that I hadn’t shaken off Jane Rowlands. Her gritty determination paid off, and once we’d crossed a track about half way up, my heart, head, and many other parts of me just wanted it all to be over. Jane pressed home the physical and mental advantage, opening up a clear gap.  Far be it from me to challenge the results – particularly when they are in my favour – but did I really finish in front of her?

What goes up, must come down, and during our Thursday night training session Colin gave us some advice on how to approach the second half of the race. It was important he said, to focus on the horizon – or at least, a point roughly level with our heads, approximately one hundred metres away, rather than the ground immediately in front of us. In short, looking where you are going could only end in disaster. This theory seemed alarmingly similar to the one that led to the Greek debt crisis, but as I staggered over the summit I was willing to give it a go – just as soon as I’d regained the feeling in my thighs.


Race Runner-Up, and First Lady, Emma Gould

However, as Colin had predicted you become aware of major obstacles in your peripheral vision even when focusing on the beautiful scenery in the near distance – and to my surprise, one of these obstacles took the form of Eilish Gilbert – dramatically draped over the heather, legs at sixes and sevens, her blond hair mingling with the undergrowth. Although clearly she was conscious, she did seem completely spent as a result of the up hill effort and I stopped momentarily to make certain she was alright.  Within seconds, her younger sister Ffion appeared and assured me that Eilish was fine. It crossed my mind that this conclusion may have been influenced by sisterly competitiveness, but I decided that was their business, and continued to pick my way through boulders, Ffion almost literally breathing down my neck.

Although the descent is a blessed relief, it is hard on the joints, and was particularly dry given the lack of any significant rainfall in recent weeks. And it is longer than you think. As my second wind became nothing more than a gentle breeze, I realised I had broken a golden rule by stopping to check on the welfare of a competitor. It is a bit like returning to a lit firework – and within the last mile the exploding Catherine Wheel that I thought was Ffion, turned out to be Eilish, barreling past me, seemingly out of control. I’d given just about all I had to give by that time, and there was no catching her. At the finish she told me she couldn’t remember anything of the incident at the summit, and that by the time she’d got home (just round the corner) and ‘had a bit of sugar’ she felt much better. She’s like Terminator II that woman.


William Laye of Bridgnorth

I did manage to gain a place or two at the tape due to what my father (having adjusted the volume on his hearing aid) would call ‘a bit of bad luck’ on the part of several other runners. A combination of an inexperienced marshal and some tired runners led Heulwen Gilbert, Tom Powell, and at least two others on something of a wild goose chase.  At the farmyard a heartbeat from the finish I came upon this group, large as life rather than specs in the distance, re-tracing their steps. I was confused, then delighted at this turn of events and was juuuust able to pip Heulwen at the post – although I did have to retrieve my eyeballs once I’d passed through the funnel. Something of a hollow achievement I suppose, but all’s fair in love and fell racing..


Nearly finished

An excellent spread greeted us back at the hall – a piece of carrot cake the size of a small cottage, and a welcome cup of coffee, all accompanied by the dulcet tones of Iain’s daughter Jessie singing Bastille cover versions and her own compositions.

All in all this has the makings of a great event, which I hope will go from strength to strength in the years ahead.  Congratulations to everyone who took part – and most importantly to those who took the time and trouble to organise it. On the front of my ‘running file’ is a picture from the cover of a Barnet & District AC monthly magazine circa 1999. There’s a young lad (presumably about 25 now), wind in his hair and displaying all the signs of a promising athlete. I’ve no idea who he is, but the caption reads ‘The Joy of the Run’.  OK, so the ‘Joy’ on Sunday may have been somewhat retrospective – but there’s little better than the satisfaction of having tamed The Beast. It is the very devil after all.

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