The Festival of Endurance at Hever Castle is like a box of Celebrations chocolates: there’s something for everyone. The race weekend features 12 events including a half marathon and marathon, meaning everyone can compete in whatever event they feel most comfortable in.
I chose to do the half rather than the full marathon and was mightily relieved that I did as race day saw the sun blazing in the sky at dawn and temperatures soaring into the low 30s. Even though this was the first time a half marathon had been included in the festival line-up (and the second time a marathon had featured) there was a great turnout – the organisers’ legendary attention to detail having assured runners that they’d be just as well looked after as the triathletes who return year after year to take part in the Castle Triathlon Series. And so I wasn’t in the least surprised to find my neighbour and good friend John had already signed up for the half marathon the minute entries opened. We decided to make a party of it and packed a picnic to enjoy under the trees once our race was over.
Running for love
At the start I chatted to several women about why they’d chosen this particular race. One, Saskia Shea from Whitstable, told me she was doing it for love: she’d got married at Hever Castle eight years ago and was keen to experience the stunning views the estate is renowned for. Another, Sherree Kempton from Sevenoaks, also cited the beautiful setting. ‘It’s local to me and very beautiful so I couldn’t think of a nicer place to do my first – and what may be my last! – half marathon,’ she said. I also spotted many people running for Macmillan Cancer Support, a charity close to my heart, and later learned that they’d been given free charity places by the organisers.
The race briefing was full of laughter: Brian the race director cautioned us not to spend too long in the aid stations which featured a long list of mouthwatering edibles such as Jelly Babies, Ritz crackers and energy bars. Later I encountered Brian out on the course, not just directing runners and stopping cars but hollering encouragement too (if Carlsberg made race directors they’d make them like Brian!)
Once we set off I found the scenic course was a bit of a pick-and-mix too. If you like running beside flower meadows, you can do so at Hever. Running in cool forests? Or next to castles? Besides golf courses? On gravel? Sand? Roads? Bridle tracks? There was simply never a dull moment, which meant the miles flew by just as quickly as the butterflies and birds I spotted en route. Another wonderful distraction was the company of the race’s only tutu-clad entrant, Sally Lilley from Burgess Hill. I’d met her at the start when she’d told me she was doing the event, her second half, in preparation for her first marathon in the New Forest in the autumn, and had confessed she was a bag of nerves. As most of you know by now, chat-running is my favourite type of running, and is guaranteed to banish any nervous-newbie wobbles, so I set about encouraging Sally to chat rather than kvetch. She told me she was running to raise funds and awareness of The OLLIE Foundation (which stands for One Life Lost is Enough), a charity devoted to stopping teenagers and young people from taking their own lives, having known six people personally who’d committed suicide. ‘Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people aged 20 to 34,’ she told me, ‘so it’s really important that the stigma of discussing mental health is overcome.’ The charity aims to train teachers to spot signs of mental distress which, Sally hopes, will prevent others having to experience what her daughter went through when a friend came to visit just hours before throwing himself in front of a train.
Sally’s other reason for running was her remarkable adoptive dad Doug Mitchell, who’d passed away aged 88 just six weeks before. ‘I adored him,’ she told me as we ran past some balloons tied to the branches of a tree where a family was celebrating a birthday. ‘He was incredibly adventurous and we were planning to go parachuting together when he died.’
I’ve attended several races in the UK where the water provision has been less than adequate, but in this event I needn’t have worried. Water, energy drink and gels (and sponges) were available every few kilometres or so, and the volunteers were only too happy to refill the trusty water bottle. Something else that set this race apart was the marshals, definitely some of the most encouraging I’ve ever encountered despite having to stand outdoors in sweltering heat for most of the day. When I told one of them that she was the second most cheery marshal we’d encountered on the course she eagerly asked what was missing from her cheerleading routine, and when I said ‘arm waving’ she immediately threw in a few arm moves to make sure she was equally supportive.
Something else that’s utterly fantastic about this race is that there’s no cut-off – the race officials are waiting for people who’re doing triathlons of up to Ironman distance, so there’s not an iota of pressure to push yourself harder than you want to or can. With this in mind, I walked quite a bit of the course, wary of overheating, and even so the finish line felt as if it came up much too soon. A lovely volunteer hung a medal around my neck and I was ushered to a table where yet more party-style refreshments such as watermelon awaited me. I can truly say this was one of my favourite half marathons and I’ll most definitely be back next year for some more fun in the sun.