When I told people I was doing the Bacchus Half Marathon, there’d be a pause, and then a look of consternation would cross their faces. Bacchus is the Roman god of the grape harvest, wine and winemaking, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. According to Wikipedia, ‘his thyrsus is a beneficent wand but also a weapon, and can be used to destroy those who oppose his cult. His maenads feed the dead through blood-offerings’.
Half marathons, on the other hand, involve running.
Now, the organisers of the Bacchus Half have picked and chosen which elements of ancient Roman religion they want to appropriate. At least on paper, they’ve decided to skip the ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and blood offerings. The reality is perhaps another matter, but they don’t write ‘you’ll be torn to death by maenads’ on your race registration pack.
What they do tell you is that this is an undulating course, ‘multi-terrain with a bias towards off road’, which ‘starts and finishes at the marvellous Denbies Wine Estate near Dorking in Surrey. Despite the area being known as ‘lumpy’, we have attempted to flatten this route as much as we can.’ (Hmmm.)
They also point out that there is wine at all the drinks stations, a generally festive vibe and a post-race barbecue. Inspired by the famously wine-soaked Marathon du Medoc, its focus is, apparently, ‘fun, fun, fun’.
I’d wanted to write an article about the race, specifically the logistics of combining running with drinking, but I received a curt response to my pitch: “Hi Abi. Is it dangerous to drink wine during a half marathon?”
I honestly had no idea, but figured there was only one way to find out.
I went into this event with an A-plan and a B-plan. My A-plan was to get a decent time, maybe even finishing near the front. After all, I’m a reasonable runner but not an excellent runner; if I’m ever going to have a hope of placing in a race, it’ll surely be one where everyone else is drunk and dressed in grape suits. I looked at last year’s results, and the leading women came in at 1:40; I know if the stars align on the day I’m capable of running that fast.
It would, however, be an ambitious goal. I haven’t trained much on trail, let alone attempting 13 straight miles on trail, and my version of hills are the sloping streets of North London. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I loathe off-road running with every fibre of my being – it’s unnecessarily difficult and reminds me of cross-country at school. Much as I love the countryside, I’d love running on it a lot more if the paths were all covered in bouncy tarmac instead of sand, rocks, tree roots, mudslides, branches, and other opportunities to face-plant.
So I had a get-out clause in my B-plan: namely just to enter into the spirit of things and enjoy the day. Most people turn up in packs, jog round in fancy dress and stop for ages at the ‘feed’ stations getting sozzled. Think wine tasting with a bit of casual gallivanting thrown in; roaming the countryside with your nine closest friends while dressed as 10 Green Bottles. There’s a cut-off time of seven hours, for crying out loud – you could do that on a snow-plough.
In reality, what happened was an uneasy compromise between the two, with everyone in front of me seemingly following my A-plan and everyone behind me plumping for B. I was stuck with plan A.ii, in which the competitive running part of my brain was dealt a serious blow and my costume was too half-arsed to compensate.
The Bacchanalia started in earnest on the 8:40 to Dorking, when my carriage filled up with B-plan runners. A group of friends, dressed as garlic-wielding Gallic stereotypes, spent the journey perfecting their twizzly moustaches. Another woman, who announced she’d be running the full marathon, took off her jacket to reveal herself as Snow White.
I put on my tokenistic cat ears and tried to calm my nerves by thumbing through Runner’s World. My stomach settled into an anxious churn, and my face into a yawning grimace. An hour later, as we wandered up to the vineyard, we were joined by streams of people rocking gold body paint and lycra Wonderwoman costumes.
I arrived just in time to see the marathoners setting off, and then there was another hour to kill before start time. Some participants were getting into the mood by drinking beer for breakfast. I wandered round disconsolately, wishing that I had someone to keep me company and cursing the fact I’d been out dancing last night – it left a legacy of aching glutes.
11am swung by and we were off. A lap of the vineyard first, followed by a jaunt into the nearby town (road running you are a balm to my soul) and then onto the trails that would characterise the rest of the race.
I realised pretty early on that I wasn’t feeling great; it was just one of those days where neither body nor mind was co-operating. I found myself unreasonably angry with the terrain, and unable to enjoy the fresh air or scenery because my legs felt like burdensome slabs of pain from about half a mile in.
So I and my attitude problem and all the A-plan runners (very few of whom were in costume) darted off into the stunning North Downs countryside, eschewing the first few drinks stations and preparing ourselves for the ‘one serious hill’ we had been told to expect. The early ‘undulations’, were bad enough for this particular effete city-rat: I tried to minimise their horror-factor by giving them ridiculous (and mostly very crude) names, which doubled up as an easy way to keep myself entertained en-route.
“I am mounting Lord Snot Rocket,” I would say to myself. “Second Earl of Skidmark coming up.”
This interior monologue was maintained more easily through my lack of iPod. This event is quite serious about banning headphones – if you’re caught with an mp3 player, you’re disqualified – and so as well as being my longest ever trail run, it was my longest ever without music. I get that running without music allows you to fully immerse yourself in the wonders of nature and be as one with the forest or something, but sometimes a girl just needs some good beats.
[Highlights of this section: a marshall announces we need to look out for a roaming sheep. I am overtaken by a runaway bride.]
I managed to keep a decent pace going throughout the first seven miles, but once the ‘one serious hill’ loomed ahead, I lost it. With 50 metres of steep ascent over the course of a mile and a half, this would have been a molehill to a seasoned fell runner, but to me it was definitely a mountain. Humiliatingly, I had to stop and walk bits, all the while wheezing like the fat asthmatic kid who hides in the bushes during cross country.
I decided then to give up on my plan A strategy and revert to plan B. I let loads of people overtake me, and by this point didn’t care. Feeling desolate, I necked all the wine, energy drinks and jelly beans I could lay my hands on. Feeling even more desolate, I attempted to run and coated the trail in dabs of vomit. I walked again. The course was getting flatter now but my pace was way down, and psychologically I was all over the place.
“Good afternoon!” a marshall said to a runner.
“Afternoon?” I thought. “That means it’s past 1pm – and I’ve been running for at least two hours – and we’re only 10 miles in!”
Then I remembered, through my hill-addled haze, that the afternoon actually started at noon.
Still, I felt a two-hour goal would be ambitious by this point; my only real objective now was to make it to the end. I gave myself pep talks. “You got this,” I mumbled, over and over. “You are stronger than you think,” I ventured, borrowing the mantra of my favourite yoga teacher. “[List of swear words redacted],” I thought with far more conviction as I run-walked over yet more bloody grass.
Just before the 12-mile marker, something switched – that being the terrain and the incline. Downhill at last! Smooth road at last! All the glorious views we’d been promised stretched away to the right as we swooped and swerved into the valley. I flew down the hill, letting gravity pull me, feeling for the duration of that final mile that the last few hours had been worthwhile.
As I crossed the finish line, I saw to my enormous surprise that I’d somehow managed 1:46. I don’t wear a watch when I’m running, preferring to go by feel, and I thought I’d been far slower (around 2:10 territory). It didn’t seem just nine minutes off last year’s Great North Run time, when I’d felt like I was flying all the way.
I staggered to the massage tent, feeling very much like I had been ripped asunder by maenads. Sat around in a daze. Had some hog roast and a glass of red. Wept a little. Took the requisite medal selfie. Decided I should probably quit it with the public weeping.
About half an hour later, the area started to fill up with B-plan runners who seemed like they’d all had a far better time than I had. I recovered my composure and headed back to London, a little the wiser, much much tireder, and relieved that any flat road race I do is going to seem way easier now.
Royal Parks Half next month, I’m looking at you. Pity you won’t have wine though – that bit was great.
RESULTS – I was 49th out of 1,099 – 11th woman. NO IDEA how.
UPDATE 12/10/14 – 1:36 in Royal Parks Half – nailed it!
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands