Why I run off road : Old Winchester Hill

owhIf one photograph sums up why I run off road then its this one. I chose it to be the banner for my blog three and a half years ago and it still remains there. This stunning view of the Meon Valley and the South Downs Way (SDW) trail takes you on a rollercoaster of physical and mental effort as well as giving you an emotional experience which calls you back, like an addiction.

In practical terms I ran up and down Old Winchester hill (OWH) three times with almost 1,000 feet of elevation. This Strava link shows you the gps and hopefully my blog will give you a sense of what running through the countryside on a bright and brisk November morning means to me.

Running isn’t just my hobby, it’s my passion and a huge part of who I am. Just lacing up your trainers improves your mood and does wonders for your mental health and self esteem.

Setting off from Meonstoke I joined the Meon Valley trail via one of the many bridges that cross over it, what with it being an old railway line.

owh2The fallen brown, yellow, orange and gold leaves all combined into a carpet of colour along the corridor of trees. The temperature was about 7 degrees which meant the day had a bright and crisp feel to it, in other words, a perfect November running morning.

With only half a mile run I caught my first glimpse of Old Winchester Hill, the surrounding fields and the hedge line that marks the route up it. After a mile the South Downs Way signposts both confirm I’m in my happy place and serve as a reminder that the path ahead will need some concentration.

For the Centurion Running racers who run the whole 100 miles of the South Downs Way this is 13 miles from Winchester and 87 to Eastbourne !!

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Over the years people often ask “what do you think about while you’re running”, well, very little is the answer !! That’s the whole point of my running. Get out there and soak up the countryside. Secondly, at this time of year, there’s mud, tree roots and the camber of the trail to concentrate on.

The technical side of navigating November trails comes with practise but having said that it’s a case of taking them at your own pace. A training run is just that, training for a race or for future running, so pace isn’t as high on your off road priority.

owh5Some tree roots stand out more than others !! , some are cunningly hidden under leaves, !! but all of them can be managed with practise and care.

On colder days the air that you breath seems to energise you that little bit more than usual. Naturally, breathing in big lungful’s makes a difference and maybe its because you are out of town but if it could be bottled, there’d be a fortune to be made.

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When running these hills I wouldn’t be without my SKINS compression socks and shorts. I’ve blogged about the socks before and I’ll blog about the shorts after my longer run next week.

As the trail starts to ramp up you find your stride shortens and your lungs are working harder, in short, you are challenging yourself and it feels great (ok it hurts a bit too). The satisfaction of pitting yourself against natural obstacles and winning becomes a powerful lure. It’s you versus mother nature and its so easy to access.

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As the climb continues it’s also worth pointing out that some of the challenges are man made. The electric fence to my right clearly needs avoiding.

By now I was about two thirds up the hill and was presented with two options. Firstly, skirt around the base of the main hill and run up the steepest section or carry on climbing steadily along the rooted path up to the trig point. I chose the later knowing I’d save the steepest climb for last.

Reaching the top of OWH naturally you are rewarded with the views in all directions but I also felt a sense of history in that the Meon Valley view would largely have been the same for hundreds of years and knowing this elevated position was once used as an Iron Age hill fort.

We are very lucky in Hampshire to have both the countryside and the coast on our doorstep.

strava2With the first hill under my belt I ran across the top and encountered some very hardy looking sheep. Two of the sheep were directly in my path and neither were moving. If I didn’t know better I’d say they were staring me out, so I ran around them. No sense in upsetting the locals 🙂

Oh yes, obstacles, I haven’t mentioned gates yet. You come across all sorts of shapes and sized gates and the curious thing is that they all open in slightly different ways. I distinctly remember running the North Devon marathon and holding up quite a few runners with not being able to open a gate. The best I could come up with was, “sorry I’m from Southampton” ha ha 🙂

Generally speaking if you pull the leaver to the left and check the latch, then you may proceed.

After a short narrow section of trail I arrived at the gate where the first photo of this blog is. Referencing the map above I was now in the 2.5 to 4.5 mile section of my run. This descent and subsequent ascent was completely different.

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The SDW is know for its chalk base and as I ran down the weather and frequent use has exposed the white chalk. It is quite rutted and again the challenge of negotiating the downhill needs as much concentration as the tree roots on the other side. On my return back up I knew my calves and thighs are being tested but I made steady progress.

This particular hill will always remind me of the Race to the King which is a double marathon that finishes in Winchester. On that day this hill was about 35 miles through the race and I walked every stride of it, so it’s always empowering to run it all in one go. This photo was on that hot June day.

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And so, my final challenge lay ahead, the steepest climb. On the map above if you look up from mile 5 you’ll see a 120 feet short and fierce climb. As I descended you actually need to plant your feet with purpose because otherwise you’d start running away with yourself !!

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Again this photo was from a sunnier day but you get the scale of the trail. It’s just a case of one foot in front of the other and try to spread out your effort. Your calves are burning, your thighs are burning and your lungs feel like they will bust out of your chest but that the thrill, the excitement, the adrenaline, that sense of “really” being alive !!

In life you have so many responsibilities, deadlines and expectations of you, sometimes its great just to test yourself purely for your physical and mental resilience. Take yourself out of your comfort zone and revel in your achievement.

You have more to give than you think you have and quite honestly if you need to take a short break or walk for a while then so what !!

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If the first photo from this blog sums up why I run off road then this one above comes a close second. I passed the signpost and smiled, running with other friends clearly adds a different dynamic to your day but sometimes its great to just soak it up on your own.

Old Winchester Hill and the South Downs Way are my favourite … location, location, location and running is great for your heart and soul.

Happy Running

Roger