The Chiltern Hills Area of Outstanding Beauty is the lumpiest training ground I have reasonably quick access to. As the sun has been creeping out, and the lockdown measures have been easing off, I’ve been plotting my return. There are a crazy number of runnable trails in the wide spread area, and a great number of challenging inclines/declines to test my quads on.
Coombe Hill is an area of special scientific interest (SSI), home to 30 species of wildflower, and 28 species of butterfly, but honestly the reason I started my run here is because of the free car park. There is nothing more glorious than that. Okay maybe the flowers are more important but a gratis parking spot cannot be underestimated. It’s not an enormous space, and I imagine if you arrive midmorning on a sunny Saturday you’ll struggle to get a place, but at 8:30 on a Friday I had no trouble at all.
When I take off on these adventures I sort out a route using a combination of All Trails, race GPX files, official trails (like the Ridgeway and Icknield Way), and then the route creator on Strava, but I’m always keen to go off piste when possible, and then use the handy little GPS line on my watch to find my way home if things go awry.
However, I don’t think I’ve ever gone off course as immediately as on this run.
From the car park I planned to ramble over the monument atop Coombe Hill, snap a pic, and be on my way. What I did instead was cut a majestic path down and around and then back up the hill to the monument. I looped around through the woodland and down through an ancient feeling, barely trod path. The option was there to find your way across the hard, rooty, chalky walkway or tumble down through a leaf strewn ravine, bending around the curve of the hill up a narrow path which led back up to the top of the hill.
It was a tough climb to bring the lungs and legs alive, and thank you to the lady who graciously manhandled her dog out of my way after I announced my progression towards them. Indeed, all the people I encountered out on this run (and none of them were runners) were friendly and generous in the space that they gave me, all I did was made sure to announce my arrival in good time with a little pre-emptive “Good Morning” from further down the trail.
I reached the monument, snapped the pic, and trundled away down the long, planned, path.
I was cradled by the bending trees overhead, watching my feet on the wonderfully uneven trail. Caught in the flow of the downhill run I missed a turning, but found a nice loop point to come back on myself, grabbing some unintended extra vertical before crossing a sloping grass hill to my first slice of country road, bouncing down towards Wendover. I found my way through the pretty Hampden Meadow and Pond, snapping another pic, this time of an absolute cracker of a church.
I’m no man of God, but a pretty picture is a pretty picture.
I followed the road then to Wendover Woods, taking the killer climb up the access road, more chalky trail turning beneath my Peregrine 10’s. These hard trails are quicker going than mud or grass, but are also more demanding on the legs.
Wendover Woods is a day out in itself, with dedicated running trails, walking routes, a Go Ape! Centre, and all sorts of forestry goodness for all the family. It would also be a good place to park to explore the surrounding area if you weren’t as obsessed with free parking as I am.
I was moving on though. I joined the Icknield Way (a 170 mile route that I’m planning to explore more soon) as I ran through a series of woods which I had completely to myself. A barely noticeable climb up through Black Wood, Northill Wood, Pavis Wood, and then a huge, tumbling descent towards Dancers End. The trail just flows around this spot, shooting off in all directions. I could have spent the whole day just hanging around, seeing where I ended up.
However, I was also at the furthest point from my car and had already ran a fair bit further than intended, so the exploring would have to wait. It was time to get back on route, slam a gel, and make a push for a home.
That push for home started with some nice quiet roads (I saw the lesser spotted Tesla, charging peacefully in its natural environment) but quickly turned into a horrendous uphill slog. I can barely tell you where I was, coming back towards Wendover proper, I think, but I did overtake a couple of walkers who kindly made way for the sweaty nutter running up behind them. I did announce myself, as friendly and courteously as I could, but there’s something intrinsically batshit about such behaviour that no amount of grinning can hide.
In fact the grinning probably made it worse.
Back through Wendover, back on road, up the grass slope, up the now not-so-wonderfully-uneven-trail. I announced to myself “I think I’m going to walk” in a bout of tired insanity, and then continued to run. Power hiking some of the uphills probably would have done me some good, but it’s not really a skill I have. It’s definitely not one I have practised very much. If I go back on this route there are some particularly sharp grades that I would probably use as an excuse to practise moving from running to hiking, and back again, to make it feel more natural for me to do so.
Just under 16 miles and 2000 foot of vertical gain, this was my biggest trail run to date. My fenland legs suffered, and I frankly should have taken another gel with me instead of relying on just the one (plus some Gin Gin sweets), but it was everything that I wanted: varying terrain, crushing hills, unexpected beauty spots, and yes, it hurt. If it didn’t hurt it wouldn’t have felt half as satisfying.
I will, as I wise man once said, be back.