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Top five list of tough parkruns - on Carl Marston's parkrun tour

PUBLISHED: 11:19 23 December 2019 | UPDATED: 11:19 23 December 2019

The stunning views across the Thames Estuary, from near the start of the Hadleigh parkrun. Picture; CARL MARSTON

The stunning views across the Thames Estuary, from near the start of the Hadleigh parkrun. Picture; CARL MARSTON

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Athletics correspondent Carl Marston is travelling around the region (and beyond) running in different parkruns. Here he heads to the Hadleigh parkrun in south Essex, and compiles a top five list of pakruns in terms of difficulty

A good sign: The 2012 Olympic mountain bike trail forms part of the Hadleigh parkrun course. Picture: CARL MARSTONA good sign: The 2012 Olympic mountain bike trail forms part of the Hadleigh parkrun course. Picture: CARL MARSTON

Technically, the Hadleigh parkrun is a 'downhill' course, in that the start is further uphill than the finish.

But that's not the impression you form when tackling the 5K course at Hadleigh Country Park, overlooking the Thames Estuary from the north bank, in south-east Essex.

It was certainly not what struck me, on my first visit last weekend.

In fact, I have to say that the Hadleigh parkrun course is the toughest I have yet faced, on this parkrun tour.

A field of 101 runners and walkers congregate in the cold and wet before the start of last Saturday's Hadleigh parkrun. Picture: CARL MARSTONA field of 101 runners and walkers congregate in the cold and wet before the start of last Saturday's Hadleigh parkrun. Picture: CARL MARSTON

That might not have much clout, when considered that the bulk of my 100-plus parkruns to date have been fast, relatively flat affairs, mainly in the southern half of the country.

But the Hadleigh parkrun, first held in October, 2016, does feature on many people's lists as one of the tougher routes in the UK.

One such survey, based on statistics and in particular the standard scratch score (SSS), which compares runners' times and performances at various events, ranked Hadleigh in the top 20 'toughest courses,' albeit just sneaking in at 20th spot.

The uphill finish to the Hadleigh parkrun, in Hadleigh Country Park, south-east Essex. Picture: CARL MARSTONThe uphill finish to the Hadleigh parkrun, in Hadleigh Country Park, south-east Essex. Picture: CARL MARSTON

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I have yet to visit any of the 19 parkruns ahead of Hadleigh in this table, which boasts a top three of Woolacombe Dunes (Devon), Churchfields Farm (Worcestershire) and Whinlatter Forest (Cumbria), in that order.

So it's not surprising that Hadleigh has soared to the top of my own rankings, in terms of difficulty.

The slog to the finish of the Hadleigh parkrun. Picture: CARL MARSTONThe slog to the finish of the Hadleigh parkrun. Picture: CARL MARSTON

I had an inkling this would be the case when I rolled into Hadleigh Country Park on a very wet last Saturday morning.

I was prepared for a challenge, and I wasn't disappointed, although I did fear an even tougher test - I didn't really do my homework, and so just assumed that the finish funnel was also at the top of the hill, near the start.

Naturally, if I had known this, then I would have run a lot quicker! (if you believe that, you believe anything).

It's a one-lap course, making good use of the zig zags on the 2012 Olympic mountain bike course, for which the park is now famous.

A field of 101 of us - the record attendance of 265 was set 369 days earlier, on Christmas Day, 2018 - enjoyed the long downhill start, on the firm mountain bike trails, with the wide expanse of the Thames Estuary in the distance.

I began to wonder when all the downhill would end. In fact, the course then does a loop, first west and then east, alongside the railway line at the foot of the park, close to Benfleet Yacht Club.

I kept waiting for the serious uphill stretch to kick in, and gradually the undulations became more obvious, until the route turned sharp left and went straight up a grassy slope, through a gate at the top of the field.

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That can take the wind out of your sails, and leave your legs feeling like lead.

Back on the trail path, I was anticipating a last big, long haul up to the finish. True, it is a twisty, uphill approach to the finish funnel, in the trees, but the finish took me by surprise, all the same.

Technically 'downhill,' maybe, and not necessarily as demanding as the first two kilometres of descent would suggest, but the Hadleigh parkrun is still a tough 'un, in my eyes.

It was also muddy underfoot, and the driving rain returned before the finish, all combining to make this the toughest parkrun I have yet completed.

My modest finish time confirms this. One of my 'slowest' to date.

Here is my current list of top five parkruns, in terms of difficulty.

1 Hadleigh (Essex)

You can see why the venue remains a mecca for all mountain bike enthusiasts. The Olympic course from London, 2012, remains in tact. parkrunners are in for a tough ride, but the start also boasts the best view in Essex - a proud claim to fame.

2 Frickley Country (Yorks)

This gets on my list, because of the steep climb at around the one-kilometre mark that can take your breath away, as you look down towards Frickley Athletic Football Club. The views across West Yorkshire are awesome, though, and the paths are firm.

3 Westmill (Herts)

I was expecting a gentle 5K, from Three Lakes Campsite, but it ended up being a slippery, grassy downhill start, later followed by a stiff diagonal climb into the teeth of a strong wind. Two laps.

4 Wimpole Estate

There aren't any big climbs, but the uneven terrain and muddy conditions make this one-lapper a true cross country test.

5 Barclay (Herts)

The underfoot conditions were so bad that this Hoddesdon treat turned into a sticky four-lapper, on the 'B' course, which meant four climbs to negotiate. The first was fine, the second was OK, the third was manageable, the fourth was a nightmare!

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