The author running up Penshaw Hill

Penshaw Folly - Penshaw Hill Race 2019

On Sunday the elites of world mountain running raced at Zegama. It’s a race so legendary that they say, “Zegama is Zegama,” as though nothing could convey the essence of the race except the name itself.

Basque crowds line the path of the Sancti Spiritu climb, only inches from the runners, to cheer them on. It’s a definite on my bucket-list, but also almost impossible to get into. There’s little I can do except keep entering the ballot and live in hope.

Last night was the annual Ernie Johnson Memorial Penshaw Hill Race. It’s not Zegama but, for the briefest of moments, hurtling through the woods around the back of the monument, you could imagine.

Penshaw Hill is a low lying hill that sits to the west of the city of Sunderland. It’s visible across the area thanks to the half size replica of the Temple of Hephaestus, in Athens, that sits on its summit.

Penshaw Hill enticing you to try a sprint to the top Penshaw Hill enticing you to try a sprint to the top

The race is a roughly three mile cross country course that starts to the south of the hill. You run to the summit and around the monument before coming down to the midway point. From there it’s two laps of the hill before a sharp ascent leads you to the finish line.

The wonderful thing about this race is that it’s a short distance on a small hill. It sounds so inviting – should be easy, right? There’s a prize for the King and Queen of the hill, first to the summit, and again – it’s not that big a hill.

The wonderful thing about this race is that it’s a short distance on a small hill. It sounds so inviting – should be easy, right?

The monument sits only about 50 metres above the start line. It almost beckons you. 50 metres of climb spread across what seems like a short distance. I know I can’t even come close to winning the race over all but maybe, I think, just maybe…

And so the whistle goes and I make the split-second decision to go for King of the Hill. I’m off the line well and up the first steep section at a sprint. As we turn onto the path I’m sitting in second, right on the shoulder of the first place lad.

I make the split-second decision to go for King of the Hill. I’m off the line well and up the first steep section at a sprint. As we turn onto the path I’m sitting in second…

It’s as we start to run along the flatter section that skirts the hill that I realise my error. I had thought it was about 400m to the summit, it’s actually about 800m. I glance at my watch and realise I’ve sprinted up the hill at a pace quicker than my fastest ever kilometre pace. Within a minute of starting I realise that I’m doomed.

My pace drops and on the second half of the summit climb nine or ten others pass me. I don’t know, but I suspect I ended up about fifteen to twenty seconds behind pace at the top. I try to control my breathing on the descent but I can’t. It’s not a long enough descent and I’m trying to maintain pace.

By the time we’re circling our first lap of the hill I know that I’m spent and left to cling on. As you round the hill heading north you enter Penshaw Wood and the fun starts. I’d picked up my brand new Salomon S/Lab Speed’s for a debut outing and they didn’t disappoint.

I may be struggling, but these shoes still feel so quick. I can feel the dirt flicking up the back of my legs as we pound along the muddy trails. The grip is exceptional.

I’d picked up my brand new Salomon S/Lab Speed’s for a debut outing. These shoes feel so quick and the grip is exceptional.

A half dozen people wait at the bottom of the climb through the woods and manage to make a huge amount of noise. Their voices echoed through the trees as they willed every contestant up the hill. Close your eyes and dream of Zegama.

I didn’t cope well with the climb up out of the woods, but by the start of the second lap my position had pretty much settled. The rest of the lap was uneventful, one person passed me but in general I clung on.

At the end of the second lap you take a sharp right up to the summit and a steep climb awaits. I pass the finish line in 22:01 and immediately find a clear spot of grass, lie on my back, and try to remember how to breathe.

A half dozen people wait at the bottom of the climb through the woods and manage to make a huge amount of noise. Their voices echoed through the trees as they willed every contestant up the hill. Close your eyes and dream of Zegama.

When I had gathered senses I trotted back to the final climb to join the enthusiastic Silky Striders cheering people on. It was great to see such good support throughout.

All in all, I got my strategy wrong on the day. It was folly but it was worth it for the adrenaline of that first attempt to be King of the Hill. As the ancients probably didn’t say, ‘go hard or go home’.

This race punches above its weight and is definitely worth entering. The distance and amount of climb makes it a good opportunity for all abilities to challenge themselves, while the race to be first to the top is alluring enough to entice you into destroying yourself.

Thanks to Sunderland Harriers for hosting a great night. Both the marshalling and the support were spot on. I’ll be back next year – and maybe a night or two in between to do some repeats up that first hill…