Ashlie Cherry turns her critical eye to Back to the Trenches. With 6k, 12k and 18k options, how did she find it? And what would she improve?
Having now completed a few obstacles races I was looking forward to Back to the Trenches (BTTT) at the end of June in Redhill, Surrey. This was the first obstacle race I was running alone and following a surprisingly good finish at the last race I had put pressure on myself for a another good result.
The location was easy to get to by train from London and a short distance by taxi from Redhill station to the farm. On arrival it was thankfully a very short walk to the registration area located in the same field as the car park, so everyone could easily register and then head back to cars to get changed.
My first drama…what to wear! The last few races I have worn the same, ankle length running leggings, a sleeveless vest in a sports fabric and my trusty Inov8 X-Talon’s. No questions about the vest and X-Talons, but I could not decide what to wear on my bottom half. It was a really hot day and so many people were wearing shorts that it made me question my choice of running leggings – was I going to be too hot? I had running shorts with me but no long socks or calf guards to protect my legs. I wanted to be able to focus on the obstacles and not worry about hurting myself. After seeing the injuries on people’s legs from previous races I opted for the running leggings.
There was a traditional military style warm up, I opted not to participate in this as I was trying to stay out of the sun and shelter in the shade for as long as possible before the race started. I also think sometimes these warm ups can be a little too full on, doing 20 press ups is going to tire my arms out, not warm me up! There were three race distances to choose from: 6km, 12km and 18km with various start times throughout the morning. I opted for the 12km and had managed to get in the first wave starting at 10am. All lined up, I made sure I got a good start and was one of the first females to cross the start line.
Off we set across a field to be faced with rows of plastic–covered hay bales spread farenough apart not to create any delays. At 5’2 these were quite high for me to climb over and I felt exhausted by the end; it was literally onwards and upwards! We made our way round the corner for our first steep hill climb (others were obviously also exhausted as I passed quite a few people walking already). I’d opted for a quick start to make sure I was running with the front runners at a fast pace and not to get held up by the crowds, I’m glad I did as we entered into the next field and the course narrowed with only width for one runner. This field consisted of up and down hill switchbacks and we were faced with various small obstacles to climb over and the first tyre carry of the race.
After my fast start I was getting hot, so I was grateful for the landslide and two lake swims which followed. The landslide (plastic sheeting with water/washing up liquid going down a hill) was fantastic, I launched myself down and from the race pictures I viewed afterwards my smile said it all – I loved every minute. The lake was pretty deep so everyone was required to swim. Part way across the guy in front of me started struggle and whilst I offered assistance, he assured me he was ok (there were lifeguards in canoes ready to respond to anyone who needed help).
Out of the water and back up another steep hill climb – lots of walkers at this point, many I think struggling to catch their breath after the lake swim. I decided to try and keep running (even if it was a slow pace) and before I knew it I was at the top. Next we hit a short series of up and down slopes through some woodland, over a few wooden fences and cups of water waited for us at the 4km marker.
At this point those running 6km got to run straight on past the water station whilst those running 12km or 18km had to face the two hilly fields. We ran up a slope, turned at the top to run back down the next section, then repeated this…I lost count of how many times. I really didn’t enjoy this section, it wasn’t fun simply running in a ‘rat race’ and it was extremely hot. We had a landslide at the end of the first field but unfortunately the marshal hadn’t put enough water on the plastic so it was bone dry – I heard lots of people complaining to him about this (me included) and the response was, “you’re in the first twenty people to go down it, so it’s not wet yet”. I personally didn’t think this was a reasonable explanation given that the first slide was very wet and soapy and the same number of people had gone down that one. Maybe it got better as more people went down it, but it really wasn’t fair for the front runners who got injured from sliding down hot plastic.
At the end of the two fields (glad they were over) we faced a tyre carry and this is where the marshalling again began to slip – as we approached the tyres we were given the instructions to pick up a tyre and run round the hilly field. Once I reached the tyre mound myself and the girl I had ended up running with (Ruth – we introduced ourselves during the endless rat run maze) both dropped our tyres to be informed we needed to do another lap, fine, but maybe we could’ve been informed of this before we dropped the tyres on the floor – it seemed the marshals were a little too busy chatting to give the instructions to the runners.
After another lap with the tyre followed by another steep hill climb (they certainly made good use of the natural terrain) we faced a long trail run. The first part we had to collect a small ball to run with, I didn’t quite understand this as the ball wasn’t weighted and I therefore didn’t see the point, but I did as I was told. It wasn’t until some faster runners came sprinting past that I realised we had to do two laps of this particular woodland stretch – you carried the ball for your first lap, then dropped it back in the bucket before you completed your second lap ‘ball -less’. This section really didn’t work as it was far too narrow with again only width for one runner and no space to overtake, slower runners were stepping aside for faster runners who were on their second lap and I watched one girl take a nasty fall whilst trying to get out of the way for faster runners. We continued on in the woods for quite some time with some steep inclines and drops, during which I appreciated the shade from the sun and a realisation I was grateful for my ankle length legging – my legs would’ve been cut to pieces from the sharp brambles in this section.
Out of the woods and another water point, this time, the 12km racers turned right whilst the 18km-ers turned left…I was glad to be turning right! Under some barbed wire, over some wooden posts and another tyre carry…really?! I was sick of tyres by this point and again instructions from the marshals weren’t the best. On the first lap of the tyre carry, Ruth and I were faced with a divide in the course with no clear instructions which way to go, thankfully we weren’t far from the marshals so could run back to ask, but I imagine some people took a wrong turn here and ended up off course. After our second lap we continued on to be faced with a cargo net to climb up and down, it wasn’t too steep and the helpful marshal gave us both tips and suggested climbing up but rolling down the other side – we took his advice and certainly made it down quicker than if we had tried to climb. We were lucky that there were no other racers on it at the same time and we had the space to do this. Next up we faced some rather smelly wet mud to crawl and wade through, the camera man kept insisting we put our face in the mud…that didn’t happen!
We then went on and entered another woodland area and this is where we rejoined the 6km runners, this really slowed me down as yet again there simply wasn’t enough room for faster runners to pass by. I didn’t want to be rude but I was also trying for a good time and by this point I knew I was in the top 3 females for the 12km runners in my wave and so didn’t want to slow down; I waited for appropriate times to overtake with lots of apologising.
I made it out into the field for the worst part of the race for me, the sandbag carry. Yet again it was a hill, and we were required to do two laps around the edge whilst carrying a sandbag. I struggled to even pick it up and this was my slowest part of the race by far, I simply couldn’t work out the best way to carry it and had to pretty much walk the entire two laps. I was really angry with myself.
Glad that bit was eventually over, I hit the water-filled ditches and cargo nets. Whilst there was a little more space here, lots of the 6km runners were running in groups and holding hands so it was a little hard again to get past. Once this was over I approached the penultimate field which I hated! Again it was a maze which you zigzagged up and down a good 8 times. Again the width of this at times was very narrow, so those who had the energy to still run at this point had to slow down their pace or you literally ran into other runners. This was also where we faced the electric shock wire, I did hear a marshal warn people about this, however after the race I heard lots of people complaining they hadn’t been warned and had been shocked quite badly. Maybe a sign next time just before you get to it would be good as well as the marshal warning people? There were so many small obstacles in this section and if you were running fast it was hard to know if you were completing the obstacles correctly. I am not one who wants to cut corners but I didn’t know how to tackle some of the obstacles, for example the electric shock section – these were small ropes crisscrossed over one another very low to the ground. I army crawled underneath these but again once talking to people at the end of the race is seems many walked through them and with no one around to ask it was hard to know what to do. This maze seemed to go on forever and the only thing which kept me going was the noise coming from the final field and the finish line.
I was so happy to enter the final field and a little shocked that the first ‘obstacle’ was to pick up a ‘grenade’ throw it and shout grenade. Again I think this may have been fun for those fun running or running as a group, but by this point I wanted to get into my final sprint as I could see the finish line. A bit more running, over and under tyres and I crossed the finish line in 1 hour and 21 minutes to be greeted with a medal, bottle of water and bonus banana – a nice touch. The major positive for me were the showers after. Not many races offer these and it is a great bonus when you have to sit on a train home to London.
The event has great potential – the use of natural terrain is really challenging and the fact they could offer a 6km, 12km and 18km course without runners having to do additional laps is a huge bonus. However there were some marshalling issues and I do think some of the course was very repetitive, the maze/rat runs got a little boring as did multiple tyre carries. Also some people afterwards were commenting on the course distance, I personally didn’t wear a Garmin so don’t know the actual distance I ran, however several competitors who ran the 18km didn’t clock anywhere near 18km on their Garmin’s. This was raised with the organisers on the day and they asked for the Garmin info to be sent to them so they could take a look. There were also a few issues with the race results after and it is therefore hard for runners to see where they placed, I for example know people who ran 6km who are listed on the 12km – but this isn’t the organisers fault, unless people let the organisers know if they have changed distance the organisers don’t know how far you have actually run.
The spectators who I knew watching were very disappointed with the event; many races give out maps or have signs suggesting where spectators can stand but there was nothing at this race. I saw the map that the event organisers had given out to those who asked and it was laughable – a Google earth style map with different coloured routes drawn on, nothing actually visible so completely useless. A toddler could have done better. When they asked marshals where to stand spectators received very little help and were frustrated to only be able to see such small snippets of such a long race. I think this is definitely an area of improvement the organisers should consider for future races.
Ultimately it was an enjoyable Sunday day out and I think if you are interested in a fun obstacle race it would be great. For those who are a little more competitive and care about their placing and race time, I’m not so sure.