When I think back to my school days, there was a two-word phrase that was always sure to strike terror into me and my classmates.
No, it wasn’t “school dinners”, the title and surname of feared teacher “Mr Mulliner” or even “religious education”. The two words that sent a collective shiver down our adolescent spines were “cross country”.
See, “cross country” (aka trail running) at King Arthur’s Community School was in fact, “‘Cross the road, there’s a large field on a really steep hill full of cow shit – run down it then back up again”.
This wasn’t as bad as it could have been for those of us who left it to our late 20s to let ourselves go. But I can still see clearly the exhausted faces of the more portly members of the PE class when they reached the changing rooms as the bell for the next class sounded. (By the way, it takes ages to get the smell of cow faeces out of your new Nike Airs.)
Fast forward 20 years and the words “cross country” have entered my vocabulary again. This time, however, I’m running through mud, stinging nettles and puddles by choice because I’ve signed up to do an off-road half marathon – the Camelot Challenge – in September.
The problem is, apart from the odd short run through the country park near me, I haven’t done any training for it yet. So, yesterday morning, armed with my brand new trail running trainers, I embarked on a run from my grandad’s house in Sherborne out to the villages of Thornford and Lillington. The route I planned was 7.5 miles – nowhere near the length of a 13.1 half-marathon but long enough to test my off-road mettle and wear in my new shoes.
It started well enough with a gentle jog west through Lenthay Common and the fields beyond. The sun was shining, but there was a nice breeze. So, it was perfect for a run.
After a few miles of running mostly on soft grass and well-worn paths, I reached a little bridge over the River Yeo on the edge of Thornford. By now, it was becoming clear to me how much more energy-sapping running trail running is compared to jogging on roads.
After I entered the centre of the village, I began the long climb up Lillington Hill. The terrain wasn’t so kind at this point. First I had to negotiate some large puddles. With wet feet, I then picked up a footpath that ran through the centre of some cornfields. Here, with ploughed mud thick on the soles of my new trainers and the corn slashing at my calves, I slowed to a walk. At least the views over the vale below were good.
I had to continue walking when I reached the woods as the path was incredibly steep and thick with mud. In front of me, baby pheasants were doing what pheasants do best – running around clumsily without any particular destination in mind. Their actions pretty much summed up my situation.
I was able to pick up the pace again when I reached the summit of the hill as the woods opened up into bouncy green fields again. The views out across north Dorset were spectacular.
In Lillington, I picked up the country lane that runs towards the top of Sherborne Hill until I reached the footpath that takes you down through Honeycombe Woods. The trail started promisingly but then disintegrated into a muddy, puddly mess thanks to the logging work that had been happening in the woods.
After I disturbed a couple of deer, I realised I had strayed from the public footpath (“you’re luck the gamekeeper didn’t shoot you”, my dad said later). Luckily one of the logging tracks brought me to the edge of the field I was aiming for.
Now I was on the home straight. I crossed the Thornford-Sherborne road and headed past the farm where my grandad grew up. As I ran through what looked like mud, that smell so familiar to me on those school cross-country runs filled my nostrils. I arrived back at my grandad’s house aching and with my legs caked in mud and other stuff I’d rather not mention.
Overall, it wasn’t a bad first attempt at off-road running. The only downside was the route selection – “could do better”, Mr Mulliner would have said.