Losing the plot - Chevy Chase 2019
There are a few basic elements of a good narrative — you have a character, some conflict or adversity, and then a resolution. The thing that keeps us reading, watching or listening is the tension between those things.
The writers of the medieval Ballad of the Chevy Chase understood this. They recounted a tale of Harry Hotspur, Earl of Northumberland, going on a hunt in the Cheviot Hills. The Scottish Earl Douglas saw this as an invasion and set off in pursuit, losing his life in the following battle. It had all those elements of a good story.
Seven centuries later, competing in the 63rd Chevy Chase fell race, I expected a similarly epic story — though hopefully without a death at the end. What more would you want from a race steeped in such heritage? I was already penning a race report in my head, usually ending with me struggling and behind target but mustering a heroic climb out of Hell’s Path to scrape by with a second to spare.
I expected a similarly epic story — though hopefully without a death at the end
The Chevy is a wonderful race. Leaving Wooler, you cross the hill on the common and then have a rapid descent to Carey Burn. There follows a long and sustained climb up to Broadsruther and Cheviot Knee. The ascent of the rest of Cheviot is a tale of two-halves. It starts with about two kilometres of steep climb — hands on knees, power hiking — before flattening out and giving you a quick dash over the paving slabs to the trig point on the summit.
From Cheviot Summit the next checkpoint is the summit of Hedgehope. You choose your own route and there are a few options — there’s the long way round via Comb Fell, with less ascent and descent, I saw one competitor double back the way we’d came, but for most the solution is simple: hang a left off the summit and launch yourself down the steep side.
For most the solution is simple: hang a left off the summit and launch yourself down the steep side…
There’s Harthope Burn to cross at the bottom but most of the time you don’t even have to wet your feet. A slog up through the ferns to the summit of Hedgehope follows before you head back towards Wooler. There’s a short technical section along Carey Burn before the final ascent of the race, the well named Hell’s Path. A marshal at the top takes your number and a couple of quick miles follow taking you to the Youth Hostel finish line.
In previous years I’ve emerged from the Chevy with a story to tell, having never quite hit my target and always had to fight the desire to quit. This year, however, there’s no story: I was hoping to scrape in under four hours but didn’t know if I was capable.
Heading back towards Wooler on the 2019 Chevy Chase
By the top of Cheviot I was seven minutes ahead of target and I dropped into the valley expecting a slow down that never came. I summited Hedgehope twelve minutes ahead and by the time I set off up Hell’s Path that was seventeen.
It’s not that my legs didn’t hurt, they did. It’s not that I didn’t doubt, because I did. But this time the pain seemed to only make me quicker, as though some external force was propelling me.
I dropped into the valley expecting a slow down that never came
I sprinted along the path behind the hostel and realised that I could beat my target by a full twenty minutes. A runner in front, who could’ve blocked me from passing on the single track, stepped aside to let me by. I crossed the line in 3:39:59.
As I finished up, every sportswear advertising slogan I’ve heard sprung to mind. I found myself in the rare position of significantly exceeding what I thought I was capable of. It’s great for an emotional high, but doesn’t leave me much of a narrative to retell.
I love telling running stories but they only really work when there’s a struggle. Explaining how you ran into a 75mph headwind with twisted ankles, wanting to crawl into a ditch and cry, is much more compelling than saying, “it went better than expected, everything went right, and I finished ahead of target”.
Runners are a lot like disciples in that we glory in our sufferings. As Paul of Tarsus said; “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope”.
Next year, I’ll try to add a little more drama.