Where: East Meon, Hampshire
When: February 27, 2011
First Man: Julian Manning (2:21:02)
First Woman: Emma Taylor-Gooby (2:49:49)
Last Finisher: 5:28:47
Number of finishers: 354
Race Type: Rural/ Trail
RW rating 2011: 95%
Dry as a bone and flat as a pancake: two phrases I won't be using to describe my experience of the Meon Valley Plod.
This 20.3(ish)-mile event was established by the Portsmouth Joggers Club in 1997 as a masochistic 21st birthday present to themselves and has been tweaked almost yearly, sometimes to avoid land erosion or new Sights of Special Scientific Interest, other times just to keep things fresh and interesting. Regardless of any changes, the race has always enjoyed an appealing reputation of being both tough and fun.
With a bright sun in a nearly cloudless sky, the tone was set at the start line, where the megaphone announcements were more stand-up than warm-up. We were warned against the twin dangers of 'meddling with sheep' and 'peeing too publicly', and were told that the only sensible advice to follow was: don't run with your eyes closed. Sage words that I was already considering ignoring as I looked out across our route, through a field that had alarming similarities to the Mekong Delta in partial flood.
The klaxon sounded and I was swept into an almost immediate baptism of sludge. The first of the seven big hills that define the Plod was upon us by the two-mile mark. The peak of the ascent, where a stile bottle-necked the pack for several minutes, proved my only grumbling point of the whole race. The complaint wasn't the stile itself - such obstacles are par for a course like this - but that without adequate marshalling here, a large number of people hopped to the adjoining field, slipped through a gate and cut a goodly corner off the course. Grrr...
But, with the sun still out and a romping two-mile downhill under my feet, my grumpiness was soon behind me as I settled into stride and marvelled at the beauty of the Meon Valley. The remoteness meant that course-side support was virtually non-existent but the marshals more than made up for this with waves, cheers, sweets and encouraging words, which were occasionally punctuated with mischievous comments along the lines of, "Say goodbye to your shoes on the next section lads!"
They weren't kidding either - the previous week's stormy conditions had left the course in the perilous state for which it is famed. Even the short sections of road (which makeup around three miles of the total) brought little relief - each time I hit a section of Tarmac I took along with me half a field of mud, which made me run like one of those button-shoed string puppets.
By the halfway point the good weather gods had packed up their toys and gone home, leaving me with deteriorating views of the postcard village of East Meon from the two-mile-long fifth hill of the course. Sometimes a downpour can be refreshing; other times it's frigid and soaks you to the skin. There was no doubt as to which state the weather left me in here - my heart was sinking almost as deeply as my shoes.
At mile 15 the terrain was close to vertical and the rain horizontal, which rather confusingly gave the illusion of lying down. This is something I seriously considered doing at this stage - and, had I not known there was only one more hill to go, I would probably be lying there still.
And so to that final hill - a mile-long climb of 120m up a gullied incline that looked more like a dry riverbed (except it wasn't dry) and that demanded every last ounce of energy from legs that were heavy from mud-clogged shoes. A Portsmouth Jogger passed me, smiled and said, "See why we call it a plod?"
The final mile back to the finish line seemed endless, and I all-but-fell the last few metres, figuring that if my head crossed the line it still counted.
A medal and an oh-so-appropriate sports towel was awarded to every finisher, and a swarm of volunteers busied themselves around us, pressure-washing legs clean, helpfully untying laces and generally trying to convince us that we were still alive. Inside race HQ, hot drinks and treats made everything feel much better and I have seldom seen such a bunch of dementedly happy-looking runners.
This event has everything that makes British running great: dappled sunlight across lush valleys, good organisation, humour in the face of adversity, downpours and squelching quagmires. If your idea of fun is starting a day's running by considering your hydration strategy and ending it being jet-washed and going home to google 'hypothermia', then the Meon Valley Plod is just the run for you.
What you said: "An evil course, with endless mud and hills, but a fantastic event. Organisation was perfect, friendly and very runner-focused." Andrew Cox
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