Race report: Forest of Dean Half Marathon

Circa December 2016, I decided my next goal was to hit the trails more often. I was tired of running exclusively on streets, often along noisy, polluted roads.

I had been off-road before. Short runs around lakes, patches of woodland, through the odd muddy field... Then I did my first trail race, the Cottrell Park 10k. It was hard and I was relieved when it was over, but I loved where we were running. It was beautiful and it was quiet.

Cottrell Park Christmas Cracker 10k

So 2017 would be the year of trails. Get off-road and enjoy the scenery. Plus, the softer, uneven terrain and hill work would do me good. But I needed to up the game - it was time to test my endurance with a longer race.

Given I regularly visit the Forest of Dean, the Spring Trails Half Marathon in the heart of the forest made sense. I love the forest. Escaping to this place is like therapy. My husband grew up here and we regularly walk the trails with family.

Forest life usually entails mud, birdsong, long walks, peace and quiet, more mud, chestnut foraging, a bit of tree-climbing, caves, lakes and streams, avoiding wild boar, even more mud, and very soggy, happy dogs. Then we get home to an amazing lunch and snooze in the big chairs overlooking the forest. It's one of my favourite places in the world.

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The Forest of Dean Half Marathon has been organised by the local Rotary for years, one in the spring and one in the autumn every year.

My lowdown on the race:

The atmosphere was relaxed and cheerful in the starter village. Some people were jogging around and getting warmed up for a fast race; others were munching on greasy bacon baps. Your bib isn't posted to you, but if you're in the area you can pick it up the day before while the canicross version of the race is on.

I met up with fellow runners from the CDF Club for a pre-race photo, then spent the rest of my time queuing for the toilets. The shortage of portaloos was the one downside to this event, and apprehensive runners debated if they would have time for one last wee. There are no toilets on the course (and no, we weren't prepared to use the forest).

CDF Runners

The race
This turned out to be one of the best races I've ever entered, if not the best. I loved every minute of it. With no time goal, my main focus was on taking it easy, getting around the course and enjoying myself.

I started out right near the back and a gap quickly widened between me and, well, pretty much everyone else. I was literally one of the last five runners. Why does everyone start off so fast? The adrenaline? Getting caught in the 'flow' of others? Either way, I stuck to my pace plan and focused on my own priorities.

Forest of Dean trails

It paid off. I was able to stick to a steady pace and didn't stop once. An advocate for the walk-run method, I didn't actually intend to run non-stop. At mile eight I realised I had come so far without walking, even on the hills, so I figured I'd keep going a little bit more... then a little bit more. By mile ten I was determined to keep going and powered up hills I would normally give up on.

For several stretches of the course I was on my own. The forest became peaceful, the only sound was the wind in the trees. This felt oddly poignant for me. My long runs are usually my alone time and, over the course of months of training, you do a lot of thinking. This 'alone time' during a race felt like the climax to hours of contemplation and mulling, turning self-doubt into self-belief. Just as important, this race was fun. I had a great time from start to finish.

The arboretum near Speech House, the start and finish of the FOD Half

Running buddies and supporters
When I wasn't alone, I was surrounded by the nicest people I've encountered on a race before. At Silverstone, people seemed to keep to themselves. Here, I met some great people, heard amazing stories and we supported each other through the race.

I spoke with runners who were taking part in their first half marathon, another who was already on their fourth this year. Several were training for London Marathon. One woman was celebrating her 58th birthday. Another was running so she could be a good role model for her young children. I spoke with lots of people from Cardiff, many of whom will be doing the Cardiff Bay 10k in April. I spoke with people from Pembrokeshire, Swansea, Blackwood, Brighton, Telford, Cheltenham and the Forest of Dean.

Combined with the wonderful marshals and spectators who cheered me on, this is the friendliest race I know of.

Approaching the finish - almost there!

Emotional finish
Mile 12 and I knew I couldn't stop now. It was in the bag, right? That last mile seemed to go on forever and fatigue set in. Too late for one last energy gel? Is that another hill? It was tough, but I knew I could - and would - keep going. 

Someone shouted my name. My husband. I was so happy to see him and he spurred me on. The finishing straight. A group of women near the finish started cheering loudly for me and it hit me I had done it. I had actually done it. I pushed to the finish line and emotion washed over me. I've felt happy and proud at races before, but this was different. At that moment I realised the mental and physical battles I'd fought for so long had been overcome.

Illness and injury may have hampered me. It knocked my confidence and it slowed me down. But after months of training this race helped me realise just how much I still love to run, and taught me to turn self-doubt into self-worth.


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