I love an autumn 10K. Especially one that’s off-road. I love the cool, crisp air. I love the crunch of leaves (or squelch of mud) underfoot. And I love the sense of camaraderie that’s all pervasive, igniting everyone it touches with enthusiasm and excitement.
Oh. And also? If there’s face painting on offer, the kids are on board with it, too. Which is a double win right there. Not long ago I took part in a local 10K that ticked the above boxes, so there were smiley faces all round.
Organised by Petts Wood Runners, the eponymous 10K is one of my all-time favourites, with a lovely, long, off-road section that rises and falls through the woods. I’m going to be honest, the ‘undulations’ (let’s be clear here: they’re HILLS) are always a challenge, pushing me into discomfort. But then, I’m in my happy place in the woods, so it kind of cancels out. Plus I quite like an incline (I’m odd like that): the way your legs can feel on fire one minute, only to flood with oxygen (and relief) when you hit the top, and you’re rewarded with that incredible feeling that, however tough it gets, your mind and body CAN do it.
This was the third year I’ve taken part in the Petts Wood 10K and, to make it even more special, this time round some of my running group were joining me. We had a mix of event experience between us: four out of eight of us have taken part in numerous races before; two had done events in the past but not for years; and for two it was their first ever race. We met up at the start under blue skies, and we were soon watching the front runners set off, racing around the first field and out of the park, as we waited patiently at the back of the final pen.
A few minutes later it was our turn. Setting our own individual paces (we’d decided that trying to stay together as a group of eight would be nigh-on impossible), we jogged along pavements, footpaths and through a nearby open space, hitting the woods (and a big hill) at 4K.
Even though the majority of us were now running solo, the marshals’ encouragement didn’t stop once. Busy bottle-neck sections gave the chance to smile and chat to fellow runners. Quieter sections saw me running relatively alone, mindful of the sunshine and tree roots and the sheer joy of running.
And then, at 8K, at the bottom of a gentle downhill section, I saw Spiderman and Elsa frantically waving and shouting at me to keep running. There’s nothing like a high-five from a superhero and ice queen to spur you on, right? (My husband reliably informed me that mere moments before, my four-year-old had been chatting to one of his friends about the fact they’d seen LOADS of runners go past already, and WHERE was Mummy? “She’s obviously a slow coach!” he’d shouted. Thanks, son. (I’ll just gloss over that one.)
There was one more gentle hill before the turn back to the park and the finish line, which I managed to tackle with a smile on my face. But by now, my legs hurt. And I was slowing down.
And then, about 400m from the end, Spiderman appeared once more – this time racing along beside me yelling excitedly, “Mummy! Mummy!”
Well. There was only one thing for it: I grabbed his hand and we ran together. He was a little bemused at first, turning quickly to delight: he was running with Mummy! We crossed the finish line together – me spurred on by my hero: my little boy. And then, of course, he got the medal. Oh well.
Reuniting with my running group once we’d all crossed the line was a great feeling, and everyone had loved the experience (a relief, since I was the one who’d suggested it to most of them in the first place).
And you know what I’ve realised? Yes, the evenings are now dark. And it’s cold. And sometimes rainy. But that’s OK. Because as long as there’s running, and trails, and a sense of community, and Spiderman to hold my hand from time to time, life is good.