I grew up in the North East, residing from 1977 to 1989 in a little village called Station Town. Station Town was technically in County Durham although very much on the borders of Cleveland (when it existed).
Residence was in an old miners house, situated away from the village, in a single terrace built adjacent to Hutton Henry Colliery set on the edge of the Durham Coalfield. I lived there with my mum and dad and my twin brother. The setting was rural and the house itself best described as characterful. No central heating, in fact no mod cons at all.
Although we were lucky to have an indoor lavatory.
The bathroom for years had a broken vent above the bath. If the wind was blowing the right way and the weather was so inclined, it would snow on you while you sat in the bath.
As they say, it’s grim up North.
The sitting room was blessed with a real fire which (since it also provided the hot water in the house) was kept on pretty much constantly. The coal man delivered the bags to the house on a two weekly basis (I think). At £1 per bag, it was an expensive way to heat the water/house. So, we used to supplement it with logs.
Conveniently we had a local wood relatively close by. Actually, if you followed our little wood for long enough, it eventually merged into Crimdon Dene and the coast. But, for the most part we used to stick to our own little patch. It was sufficiently large enough for camps and tarzan swings and dens and solitude when required.
And of course, the aforementioned logs.
Some time each summer, we would don our ‘working clothes’ and Dad would take us down to the copse. We would work together, Dad dragging big logs up the hill and leave them at the gate for us to pick up and relay back to the house. Once there, we would spend the rest of the day chopping them up into logs of a suitable size to fit on the fire. It was bloody hard work. Dad always quipped that the logs made us warm twice.
Now I know by this point, you’re probably thinking this nostalgia is lovely, but what on earth does it have to do with the Knacker Cracker race report in Surrey in 2014?
It’s tenuous, I grant you, but here we go. As Pauline and I were running down Juniper Hill this morning after getting horribly lost in the early stages of the race, we were talking about value for money in events. More specifically we were talking about how to measure it. Our entry to the event was technically free. We had ‘earned’ it marshalling at the Greensand marathon held in October in very similar conditions to what we were experiencing right then (ie biblical rain and wind). So this race was really two for the price of one, especially when it came to getting us wet.
Actually a childhood spent with freezing winters and no heating and lots of time outdoors also prepares you for pretty much anything nature can throw at you. Especially when wearing a ball gown and a tiara. It turns out, this would also be useful.
The Knacker Cracker has been held on the 1st of January for the last 10 years. We’ve been at about eight of them, so its fair to say it’s a staple in our calender. It has a massive cult following, not least because of the four ascents/descents of Box Hill over 10k (AKA tough) and the fact that most of the runners wear fancy dress.
After years of turning up in my pyjamas I fancied wearing something different. I have (had) a beautiful ball gown that I cherished but happily was growing out of. I never ever want to return to the weight that I was when I started this whole THING. So, rather than weep over a gown I would never wear again. I decided to wear it one last time, in the race. It would be a celebration of the dress and all I have achieved and the new year and our coming targets. I would trash the dress, but do it in a way I could look back fondly on. Fancy dress indeed :O)
As we approached race day, the weather forecast began to deteriorate. That area of Surrey around the Mole Valley was decimated when the Mole burst its banks on Christmas Eve. In fact, when we did a run through last week, we couldn’t even traverse the river as the course demanded.
By race morning, a severe weather warning was in place for the South East and an amber warning for the River Mole.
I questioned the sanity of the costume choice, but since this was to be a celebration, so be it. Pauline and I started at our customary place at the back. We were shivering, desperate to get going and after singing the national anthem awaited the gun and the possibility of warming up.
I’d spoken with Alan just before the race start. He was supposed to be manning a water station customarily held underneath the view point at the top of Box Hill. Instead, because of the extreme weather, they had decided to move it further along the course adjacent to the Smith and Western pub.
This was definitely going to be a special race.
On the first ascent up the Burford Slope, it became immediately apparent how special it would be. The thin mud layer above the chalk downs was absolutely saturated, with rivers of water flowing down the slope towards us. Trying to get purchase underneath our feet (without taking into consideration running in a gown) was impossible so we were quickly reduced to a walk. Soon the others just ahead of us came to the same conclusion. And the race turned into a big trudge up a hill for a while as the winds literally howled around us.
The relentless climb got us warm pretty quickly. We had a chuckle at the poor Scottish piper at the top of the slope who was valiantly trying to play his pipes. It sounded a bit ‘Morecame and Wise-ish’. (I’m playing all of the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order).
Then post piper, turned left onto the military road leading to the top of the Zig Zag Road. We headed over the road and into the car park to find the track leading to the water tower. We followed the signs as this is the bit I’m always a little unsure of (in fact – we had taken the wrong path last week and had to head off piste to find the correct track).
Soon, we came to a triangular point with a confusing bunch of signs. The arrow was pointing right on a path heading upwards which I knew was incorrect as we should have been heading down by this point. But since it was backed up by tape, P and I had a conflab and assumed that Rob had altered the course slightly due to several trees falling down on the course.
A short while later we got to the fence line that I knew lead us to the Smith and Western pub. It was way too soon to get here and no way to access Juniper Hill (now behind us) from here without going back the way we had come. We saw an injured runner walking back towards us who explained in fact that most of the field had got lost so P and I made the decision to re-trace our steps and at least tackle Juniper Hill.
We slipped and slid and giggled our way back through the vegetation until we were back on track. We leaped over logs and hung onto trees and disappeared into puddles way deeper than they looked initially, until we came out at the top of Juniper Hill. Surprised not to see any other runners coming towards us, we made our way through the gate and down the hill to the water station.
At the bottom of the hill, we met a lonely bedraggled bloke dressed as a nun. We asked if he was at the head of the race. He replied ‘yes, I think I’m the only bloody one in it!’ and then carried on. We confirmed with the marshals at the bottom that we were the second and third persons they had seen on the route at that point. Which raised two questions; where the hell was everyone and were we headed for a podium finish?
Back up the hill the giggling continued (and did so for the entire race – I’ve never felt such pure enjoyment in an event before).
We retraced our steps, clambered back over the fallen tree and followed our path back to the Smith and Western where Alan was hopefully still waiting for us. Happily, he was there and also confirmed we were the only ones to have completed the full course (with the nun).
We headed off down the chute to the south side of Box Hill proper taking it carefully (this descent has a reputation) before climbing back up to what would be decision time. Would we turn right to finish off the climb to the viewpoint and have a hope of completing the full course or would we turn left and a short route back to the finish and call it a day?
A quick chat with the marshals to confirm they though we were ones of only three to do the full course confirmed our path and right we went for a quick dance around the trig point and then down the steps to the stepping stones.
The bridge was happily visible and accessible when we got there. But not for long as torrents of water raged under the bridge and flooded out beyond it. A chap was sat on the far side of the bridge, watching fascinated, as the flood rose beyond the outer reaches of the steps. Scared we would get stranded on the bridge we quickly turned back. The increasing flood wetting our feet as we clambered off the bridge.
The steps up the side of the hill were a lumber and seemed to take forever to climb. Especially as I was still clutching my shoes and had swept up the skirts of my dress to avoid tripping over it.
While we climbed, we discussed the fanfare that awaited us at the finish. The race was famous for its post soup and sandwiches and cheering crowd stood at the foot of the hill waiting for later runners to arrive. (bearing in mind we had still not seen another runner apart from the nun – the whole thing was becoming surreal).
We crested the Burford Slope and headed down the hill and laughed hysterically when we saw not one soul left at the finish line. In fact, there was no finish line and no evidence of a race ever having occurred.
As we approached the tree where the finish line is normally strewn, Alan and another marshal jumped out from behind and formed a finish line arch with their arms. We were done. In every way.
On the way down the slope Pauline and I discussed how we would apportion our technical victories. I would get first lady vet 40, P first lady vet 50, she would claim first female and second overall and I would claim second female and third overall. A podium finish.
In fact, it was not ours but the race directors decision and he awarded the knicker knacker trophy for first place to both of us jointly.
It was only ever going to be a technical victory, but a victory nonetheless. Dedicated this time to perseverance and sheer bloody mindedness. But in all honesty, I’d had the best fun ever, it was a fabulous way to start the new year, a celebration and a great send off for the dress.
And no one could ask for more.