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Surrey’s quite flat isn’t it… A blind runner & his guide take on the Copthorne Races

Copthorne Challenge 50km

The Copthorne Challenge is run over a 10 mile loop centred around Mickleham Village Hall in the Surrey Hills. There are options to run a 50km, 50 mile or 100 mile distance by completing 3, 5 or 10 loops respectively. Each loop covers a variety of terrain with an approximate ascent gain of 2100 feet per loop.

This is our experience of attempting the 50km challenge as a blind runner and guide

Eros: As soon as I entered Mickleham Village Hall, it brought back memories of early morning starts during my school hiking days in Cyprus. It was warm inside and there was a smell of breakfast and warm beverages in the air. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming despite every person having their own tough race ahead. After the customary numerous toilet visits before the race, it was time to put all my gear on, a couple of people came up to wish me luck, and at that moment I clearly felt like ‘all the gear, no idea’! 8 o’clock came around so quickly and we were off!

Sarah: Just a few minutes earlier we had been running a very gentle downhill, deeply and softly carpeted with copper coloured leaves, it was truly beautiful. The trail was just wide enough for us to comfortably run side by side, the carpet of leaves literally aiding the spring in our step and our minds wandered to joyous childhood memories of kicking them up in the air!

In that moment, everything seemed peachy and now here we were with Eros having fallen and on his back for the second time in quick succession… We had reached what the Canary Trail Events Team had nicknamed  ‘Kamikaze Hill’, in preparation I had been doing my best to ‘stay right’ as we had all been carefully instructed by Allan Rumbles (RD) during the race briefing and had slowed to a walk. I turned so that my feet and body were sideways across the steep downhill path that had been ahead of us and was slowly edging my way down the hill. Eros had dropped his end of the tether, a piece of rope, that we generally hold whilst running together and had adopted an arm hold so that we were more stable and physically supportive of one another and yet still in the blink of an eye there he was on his back in the mud. We slid further down the hill together whilst Eros got back on to his feet…

The rain that had poured down whilst we were safely cocooned in the car on the drive to the start meant that parts of the course now had a further added dimension. We had previously safely descended Kamikaze Hill on the two occasions that we had been to recce the Copthorne loop together but today the hard chalk and flint surface became a downhill ski slope with the added complication of a cargo net of tree roots. If we didn’t simply slip over, then the tangle of intertwined roots lay in wait to trip us, at every step.

I’m not sure that either Eros or I could confirm whether it was slip or a trip or a combination of the two that had caused the fall but all of the elements had added to the difficulty in getting back up, only for him to come down again.

There can’t be much of a worse feeling when being a guide runner than the person that you’re running with falling over. The initial concern over whether they’re injured, luckily being replaced as he was fine, if a bit wet and muddy, with the nagging guilt of I should have explained that better, I should have taken a different line, I should have… should have… should have… until the ultimate I shouldn’t have… signed us up for this.

Here we were, probably only a couple of miles in to the first loop and we’d already hit some major difficulties and whilst we knew this descent was always going to be tricky for us, if we were honest we’d been far more worried about parts of the course that we knew were to come. Steps are difficult for us, we always have to walk them, even the stable concrete kind but this route covers numerous trail stairways including the relatively famous Box Hill steps and the now Copthorne Challenge infamous ‘Satan’s Staircase’. Every step a different height and depth, many with wooden riser planks to shore up the ground but the earth has both been trodden and weathered away leaving an extra trip hazard on every single step up or down.

When taking on these long and pretty treacherous sets of steps we drop the tether and adopt an arm hold. Recently we’ve begun using one pair of running poles between us; holding one pole each in our outside hand which helps to stabilise us both and also allows Eros to feel for the next step and assess how far away and high it is.

When the paths become very narrow we switch our formation; I pass the handle of my running pole to Eros and then move in front of Eros and take hold of the bottom end of the poles and we can move forward, one behind the other, convoy style! We came up with this method over lockdown when we knew that we needed to come up with a more sustainable way of being able to run through single tracks than me basically trying to run sideways in front of Eros which proves difficult to maintain over any sort of distance, particularly one with challenging terrain. We’re grateful that we persisted with looking a bit odd running around our local park working it out, as it was particularly useful on some of the narrow woodland paths and the section near Headley Heath where you run between some high walls of gorse with particularly savage thorns that towered up over our heads and threatened to tear at our clothes and skin.

Eros: We made a conscious decision, ahead of time, (with the blessing of the RD) to avoid the stepping-stones over the River Mole and instead go over the bridge. This is because the first time that we did a recce of the route, I tried the stepping-stones and because I was rushing and felt under pressure, due to people behind me wanting to cross, I fell in! Not completely, as my instinct was to just sit down, so my bum was on one of the stones and my legs were dangling in the river! It was a pretty cold day so the last thing that I wanted to do was have to run whilst completely soaked! So instead we took the bridge over the river and ran around to where the stepping stones start and then retraced our steps back over the bridge and down the side of the river to where the stepping stones hit the other bank. Accumulating a very slightly greater step count than those able to cross the stones but without the skill, they had had to employ to get across dry!

I really enjoy this route as there are many memorable landmarks and features that help me know where I am on the route and how far there is still to go.

We finished our first lap in three hours so if all went the same way, we could potentially complete our three laps within the cut-off time but it actually took us nearly three and a half hours to complete the second loop. We knew there was no way that we could gain any time on a third lap so we would not be able to complete the challenge, so we made the difficult but correct decision to stop at that point. I do not normally get cramps when running but this time I managed to get cramp in pretty much every leg muscle! During the second loop I was beating myself up as this would be my first DNF and it was pretty hard to accept but I did gradually acknowledge that this course is not easy. Of course, my fitness definitely needs to be worked on, as I did not train as hard as I would have liked to but there are many parts of this course where I do not think that I could have gone any faster.

Sarah: Through being fortunate enough to be able to run solo when I want to, it’s only since guiding that I’ve realised just how many surfaces I’m able to run on without really a second thought. A spontaneous hop, skip and a jump around or over an obstacle is just part of the appeal to me when on the trails. Taking in all of the information from the trail in front of you is much trickier whilst guiding, where the information needs to not only be processed but also safely communicated on. Often the terrain is just not runnable in this context, which means that those sections of a course where as a lone runner you can count on making up lost time do not really occur nearly as frequently. Whilst a DNF is hard, I am honestly so happy that we got as far as we did. I mean two miles in, it didn’t look good but we still went on to complete two loops and that regret for entering has long since passed. I’m in awe of what Eros achieved out there

Eros: For next year I will definitely train harder and I will give it another go!

Sarah: Yes, we’ll be back for the 2022 Copthorne Challenge not least for the camaraderie of our fellow runners, the brilliant Canary Trails Events team and volunteers and the challenging but beautiful route

If you are thinking of signing up, then don’t forget your canary. It’s part of the mandatory kit… Really!

Originally Published in Ultra Magazine.

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