I have the Cotswolds Way 100km Ultra coming up in a few weeks, with 2,590m climb over the 100km distance. So when I unexpectedly realised I had a day off of work, I booked a train ticket to Box Hill and headed off for some hill training.
I’ve never been to Box Hill before, but know of it and its reputation as a great place for trail running. The North Downs Way 100 Mile (which I’m running in August) comes through here and its used by Salomon as the location of their London Trail Running Festival.
Box Hill is home to the “Stepping Stones”, a picture perfect river crossing which was unfortunately closed for repair when I arrived. Instead, I headed over the bridge a hundred or so metres up the river and started up the hill towards the Visitors’ Centre, which was going to be my central starting point for the various routes.
The steps were steep and difficult to run. No steps would have been better, running on pure trail, but the steps were of varying heights and length, making a regular stride impossible. But up I went, reaching the top and the perfect view.
Thereafter I set off on the first of the trails. Despite having looked online at the different routes beforehand, I had no idea which was which and am I am, in any event, useless at following signs. Fortunately I’d accidentally chosen a relatively gentle route to start off with. Along the hillside and through a few gates, with stunning views over the surrounding towns.
Down through a wooded area, brushing aside nettles and then up a long and steep climb to join the road, which looped back along to the car park for the Visitors’ Centre. It was here that I realised I’d dropped my tripod somewhere, so back off on a second and unexpected loop of the same route, finding it in a patch of leaves in the woods and ending up back where I started.
Back out onto the second of the trails, named on the route signs as the “Hilltop Walk”. This was accurate for a few minutes before the hilltop came to an end and plummeted down an incredibly steep loose-stone track to the bottom of the hill. Trying to slow down just resulted in slipping and sliding as well as stones giving way under my feet so the only option was controlled madness. Fly down the hill and try to add what little steering was possible.
Reaching the bottom far faster than I had any right to, it was back along for a loop to the stepping stones, along the river and then back up that monster of a hill I’d just come down. Calling the progress back up the hill “running” would be generous. It was a slow slog back up. The key for hills, especially over ultras, is to climb them at a pace that allows you to carry on running straight away at the top. If you need to stop then you’ve gone too fast and it will be difficult to start again.
Back around to the Visitors’ Centre and time to test a new snack. One of the problems I discovered with the Thames Path 100 Mile was a difficulty in getting calories down me. Gels worked for a bit but then I struggled to even swallow them and hard food was a no-go. (There’s a whole heap of info on intense exercise diverting up to 90% of the usual blood circulation away from your gut to elsewhere in your body, meaning digestion all but shuts down).
Following recommendations, I’ve been using my runs to try different pouches of baby food… easy to carry, compact, easy to swallow and little to digest. This time, “Little Freddie” yoghurt. A resounding success and then off on my final trail.
The final trail was all through the surrounding woods. The trails had gotten progressively busier during the day, so going was slower, giving way to walkers.
The sky had darkened and rain was starting to spit. Coupled with the shade from the woods and with the contrast from the earlier sunny weather, I started to feel the cold. But the distance disappeared behind and before I knew it I was back at the Visitors’ Centre. Time for a spot of lunch just as the heavens opened and the rain poured down.
I loved Box Hill. I’ll definitely be back (as part of the North Downs Way 100 if not before).