Race the Train, Metro, 17 Sept 2013
Published on 17 September 2013. Read the online version here.
For those of us living in big cities, chasing buses and trains is as normal as opening an umbrella when it rains.
Trains, in particular, have an annoying habit of closing their doors just as you arrive. I often end up standing on the platform like a groom jilted at the altar. So when I hear about Race The Train, thoughts of sweet revenge spring to mind.
The event, held in the small Welsh seaside town of Tywyn, involves running 14 miles (22.5km) cross-country in the vain hope of not just catching a train, but actually beating it.
My nemesis, in this case, isn’t to be National Rail but a 90-year-old steam train belonging to the narrow-gauge Talyllyn Railway – the world’s first preserved railway and the inspiration for the children’s books that led to the creation of Thomas the Tank Engine.
And if I’m to actually beat the steam train, I’ll have to run the undulating 14 miles faster than the 1hr 48min the train takes to cover the same distance – no small feat considering that only ten to 20 per cent of entrants will be successful.
The course covers public roads, fields, rough pasture and farm tracks and, in order to beat the train, runners must keep up a steady pace of about 8mph for two hours. The train makes several stops and there’s a turnaround point with a ten-minute break, which gives runners a chance to catch up or even overtake.
Organised by the local Tywyn Rotary Club, the event celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. It’s now gained an iconic status in Britain and in the running community abroad. At the first race in 1984, just 46 runners were on the start line. Thirty years on, I’m one of 1,100 entrants.
The race starts at the main railway line bridge next to the 19th-century Talyllyn Wharf railway station. Many participants have come with their families, now on board the train, ready to offer encouragement not only to their loved ones but to any runner in sight. And despite the imminent threat of heavy rain, the streets of Tywyn are lined with locals, equally eager to lend support.
Puffs of smoke rise from the tracks below us as the clock strikes 2.05pm and a train whistle signals the start. There is a Celtic charge as the frontrunners bound off as if going into battle.
Any notion I have of staying ahead of the train soon disappears. Fifteen minutes into the race, I hear the steam train chugging behind me, as if chanting: ‘I’m coming to get you, I’m coming to get you…’ and mockingly blowing its whistle.
‘Come on, you can do it,’ a young girl shouts from the carriage, as the train draws alongside me. Grateful as I am for her encouragement, I can’t go any faster. The train slowly slips past me in a concerto of whoops, cheers and whistles, leaving me to listen to nothing but my laboured breathing.
With my heart beating like a hunted deer’s, and the rain pouring down, the next 30 minutes play out like a game of cat and mouse as I pursue the train, bounding over fields, wading across streams and trudging through bogs, only catching occasional glimpses of my nemesis through the trees.
Reaching the turnaround point in 43 minutes, I realise there is a chance I could beat this chuffing thing. It’s reassuring because the second half of the course is a killer, dominated by a couple of hernia-inducing climbs and a narrow trail along the edge of a hill treacherous enough for a mountain goat to twist an ankle.
Crossing the finish line in 14th place and in 1hr 30 min, 18 minutes before the train’s arrival, it’s obvious why this event is so popular.
Andi Jones, who wins Race The Train for the third time, sums it up: ‘Where else can you compete with fellow runners and a whistling steam train in the most beautiful scenery in the country?’
I couldn’t agree more. Whether you beat the train or not, it’s a huge amount of fun. As I clutch my medal, I decide this is infinitely better than all those 100m sprints along a London train platform.
The next Race The Train event is on August 16, 2014. Visit www.racethetrain.com
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