How hard can a southern fell race really be? Rhalou finds out.
You could argue that any undulations south of the peak district don’t qualify as a fell, but anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of running (or walking) up Box Hill would beg to differ. Despite being just a stone’s throw from London Town, with 1700 feet of ascent, the Box Hill Fell Race is worthy of its name and a serious contender on the fell running scene.
The summit of the North Downs in Surrey, Box Hill has been the pinnacle of this grueling fell race for the past 34 years and with its 250 places selling out in just 62 hours, it’s popular with diehard fans. Having run it last year, I was particularly keen to return as I’m in training for the Hoka Highland Fling (read my training blog here) and the area is the closest thing to the Scottish highlands you can get just outside the M25. As one of the toughest races I have ever run, I knew that even if I struggled, it would still be great training.
Organised by the South London Orienteers, there are no frills to the Box Hill Fell Race. You show up at the Sports and Social Club near Dorking, collect your number, head off for the foot of the hill and hope for the best. The organisers did manage to erect a makeshift start banner several seconds before the gun went off, but otherwise it’s just a succession of small white X markers snaking off into the wilderness and the footfall of 250 serious looking runners leaving me for dust (OK mud).
With multiple grueling ascents and descents, sticky mud that’s a nightmare to traverse and scree sections that twist your ankles, you wouldn’t stand a chance without a decent pair of trail shoes and some steely determination. At only 7.5 miles long it’s technically a fairly short race but it took me a good couple of hours and I wasn’t that far behind the majority of the running field. I’m also delighted to say I didn’t come last!
Due to National Trust restrictions, to make it even more challenging this year, in order to protect wild orchids the race was slightly longer and included more climbing. Having formerly started on a (rather steep) hill, they moved the start line to an even steeper mud stairwell hacked into the hillside, which definitely made it tougher. But with its well-signposted route, friendly and encouraging marshals and fun celebrations at the social club prize giving afterwards, the extra ascent didn’t deflect from a great race day and I loved every minute of it.