Saturday, December 26, 2009

Saltwood Boxing Day Run

Today we celebrated the Day of Boxes by heading out to the village of Saltwood for the Boxing Day Run - a three-mile cross country race I've done with my family for the last four years.

For those unfamiliar with Boxing Day, it is a national holiday in the UK which hearkens back to a time when servants and other social inferiors received gifts from their masters and got a rare day off. These days, it's more about football, beer and silliness, which probably explains why close to a 1,000 of us jam into the small village of Saltwood every Dec. 26 in the cold and rain to run through the thick mud of the Kentish countryside.

True to the nature of the holiday, the run is more about having a laugh and raising money for charity than it is about getting out and being competitive. The organizers, much like the day and the race, are a bit haphazard and never fail to amuse with the manner in which they're unfailingly overwhelmed by the task of timing the large numbers that always seem to take them by surprise. This year they were trying out a revolutionary barcode system to time the 1,000 or so assembled - more on that later.

My brother had his three kids (8,6 & 4) signed up to run, and Thomas - the eldest - was determined to beat our friend Jim this year after some gentle prodding from his uncle and dad, and a solid 26:30 recent 5k. Upon seeing Jim before the race in the pub, Thomas informed Jim of his intent and had nothing else to say before we headed off to the start, which had been relocated from the village green to the school playing fields.

The new start

With the new and much broader start location, up to 150 people probably toed the actual start line with runners 8 to 10 deep, so a true cross-country herd start. The rain started coming down just as we were set to start and the organizers decided that this would be a good opportunity to let us stew for a bit. Five minutes later and the horn went off, although I think I got out about a quarter second before that as I was anxious not to get trampled. Through the newly added S curves (to recapture distance lost from the start relocate) I settled into a spot about four back on the leaders who I had to shout back on course after 100 meters as they had missed a marker. I then proceeded to watch first and second, who were quite clearly in a different class, begin to open their gap on the rest of us.

After clearing the first big field, the course narrows on to a footpath and then back out to another smaller field before coming to a one-man-wide footbridge and the first fence/gate, where I was sitting in fifth and running comfortably behind three and four.

I was after a podium finish this year, and at this stage it seemed like I was in the hunt, with the three of us gapped behind second and also gapped to the pack behind. I chose to take the swing gate after the bridge rather than hurdle the fence, as the mud was so deep on the other side I was fearful that my shoe would be sucked off if I planted too hard in the slop. Working up the hill to the second fence crossing, I stuck behind the two guys ahead of me wishing desperately that I had a pair of spikes on, as the footing was just ridiculous. I had a pair of Sportiva Crosslites on, which, while decent in the mud, are no match for the traction that spikes can offer in the slop.

Once we cleared the hill and started across the biggest of the fields, I could sense that the two in front of me were either hurting or easing off a bit to recover from the hill, so I upped the pace to slip into third at the turn towards the woods, which is probably about the halfway point.

The wooded section is definitely my favorite section of the course, and today it offered by far the best off-road traction of the whole race. There is a quick drop as you get through the swing gate into the woods and I opened it up fully here to see if I could get a gap on the sodden but leafy trail section, and indeed I did, although it was short-lived as the slop soon returned and I was re-overtaken by my spike-wearing competition for third. He sounded like he was working hard so I was pretty confident that he wouldn't last.

Through the woods

Out of the woods, we continued almost shoulder to shoulder up the edge of the last field before I decided to try and get a lock on third by pushing as hard as possible on the last hill, which offered a pebbled and blissfully textured section of footpath, before hammering the drop to the final turn on to the road which leads back into Saltwood and the finish line.

As I made the turn, with a quarter mile to go, I shot a quick glance over my shoulder and saw that the guy I had been dueling for the last two miles had dropped about ten meters back. While he didn't look like he was giving up on third, I figured I had it in the bag. Error. About halfway through the final stretch, the spectators began to get very animated, and I realised that I was going to have to break out a full-on sprint to keep third.

Pick up your knees!

However, with 90 miles in my legs from the five days prior I just couldn't pick up my knees. In fact, I even heard someone shout at me to pick up my knees, but I just couldn't find it and I was out-kicked and overtaken in the last ten to fifteen meters. I finished in 17:50, which is a about a half minute slower than last year, despite the fact that I'm probably a minute fitter. Tough conditions.

Third place. At least it looks like I made him work for it.

Out-kicked again.

If I could have done it all over, I probably would have worked harder through the middle sections and not left it so late, as I quite simply don't have the leg speed for sprint finishes in these shorter races - I guess I'm more of a strength runner. One of these years I'm going to pick up some hardware from Saltwood - maybe in the new decade.

The timing? Another year, another fiasco. As I mentioned earlier, we had barcodes on our bibs this year. Unfortunately, however, the guy who was supposed to bring the equipment to process the barcoded bibs was a no-show, so the poor organizers had to scrape around at the last minute and ended up resorting to the funnel method for which they seemed woefully unprepared. When the main pack was back at the finish, the bottleneck through the funnel was probably thirty meters back, and extending way beyond the finish line into the last ten meters of the course. We'll see how many make it into the final results.

At the end of the day though, I don't think anyone really cares too much about the results and the timing, and those that do can time themselves. I don't know any other race that can charge so little (£5/$8), give away a medal to all finishers and still donate over £3,000 ($5,000) to charity.

Thomas failed in his quest to beat Jim, but still had a good run. My brother ran a solid race close to his time from last year - but was chicked by at least two, maybe even three, ladies. The winner in the women's race, Grace Nicholls, ran a very impressive race coming close to the course record (in the mud). Turns out she was fifth in the U-19 Cross County Nationals this year.

Second in the women's race, Helen Wheeler shows Matt how to work the downhill.

Matt on the home stretch.

Six-year-old William had a great run with his mom, while four-year-old Maddie was a bit too sick to run. Alistair enjoyed his race morning, as ever, getting out for a short romp around the school fields with his mom.

William getting it done.

William and his mom Karen.

Jim leads a procession down the hill.

Thomas at the point of realization that he'd been beaten by Jim ... this year.

I'm running a 10k in Harrietsham, near Maidstone, tomorrow to round out a great season of running. I'm hoping to finish out the decade by PR'ing and dipping under the 35-minute mark. We shall see.


  1. Love the fire in Thomas' eyes! Jim better start training!

  2. Great write up on Saltwood boxing day run, which I did this year too. Become a tradition for me to shake off the Christmas day food and drink! It was super muddy and running in trainers was almost twice as difficult. Well done with 4th (3rd next year!) - a very impressive time, I came around 50th which for me was a result as I knocked around 20 places off last year. Hope you keep coming back for the podium position. Best regards, Simon

  3. Really pleased to see you running well. Hopefully you will move on even more and get the rewards you are capable of. You are young enough to move on and on.

  4. The challenging off road course uses the footpaths, fields and trails in and around Saltwood - and is suitable for both experienced runners and beginners alike.