If you can get a place, Giant’s Head Marathon in Dorset is one of the must-run trail-running marathons in the UK.
When entries opened for the 2020 race, places filled up in just 15 minutes. Yes, you read that right. The waiting list of hundreds was also full not long after. But what makes this trail marathon (well, marathon ish – it’s definitely not 26.2 miles) so popular? Amy Robson gives us her thoughts on the 2019 event.
Giant’s Head: Not your average race
It’s not your average race where you ask the runners you’re with: “So was that one of the hills? Or was it a primer for whatever hills are to come?” Then again, Giant’s Head Marathon is no average race.
Set in the picturesque little village of Sydling St. Nicholas, Giant’s Head Marathon isn’t the type of thing you simply turn up and run. It’s a full-blown event.
The theme? Willies.
The highlights? High inclines.
The perks of performance? An ice cream so large that it would make the Cerne Abbas Giant itself blush.
Speaking of the Cerne Abbas Giant, Wikipedia describes this iconic aspect of Dorset landscape as having ‘a prominent erection’, and, if so, I suppose the Giant’s Head Marathon can be described as having seven prominent erections (at least), and none of them are to be underestimated.
The route itself runs from Sydling St. Nicholas in to the Cerne Valleys. I can honestly say that nothing quite prepared me personally for what that involved.
The start of the marathon was unassuming and typically characteristic. A bunch of runners amalgamated outside of a small village building (with toilets and post-run showers lovingly placed to the side), and we all clustered narrowly within hearing range of RD Andy Palmer’s race briefing.
I’d like to say I took in every word, but that would be a lie. When you run races like the Giant’s Head Marathon, then you’re essentially rocking up for a family reunion. There were many familiar faces, lots of happy natter and selfies galore. Don’t let this put you off as a potential newcomer, though; the White Star Running circuit are some of the nicest bunch you will ever encounter at a race.
As testament to the difficulty of this race, you start off with a gentle amble before turning a corner and finding an incline. I say ‘incline’ because it’s not a hill. It’s nowhere near as hill-like as the hills you will come to greet. Let’s just say that walking is more than valid as a survival tactic for the Giant’s Head Marathon.
You then run into beautiful green fields, framed on one side by sloping countryside which you (thankfully) don’t have to climb up, before meeting with a metallic structure that looks like a narrow tipi, but is actually a bell.
If you don’t go in and ring this bell then I can understand but, really, why wouldn’t you? Giant’s Head Marathon may hold the well-earned title of ‘race’, but it’s also an experience and you do yourself a disservice if you don’t soak it all in.
Ups and downs and ups
Forests merge with farmland, which then detour to rocky paths. The variety of the landscape keeps you interested, but is not so technical that it’s inaccessible to those unfamiliar with trail. It’s tricky, yes, but that’s due to elevation rather than potential neck-breaking terrain – so let’s talk about that elevation.
The hills for the Giant’s Head Marathon are tough. Each one is a panting, leg-burning challenge, not made easier by the sweltering heat that was present at this year’s race (and others, I’ve been told) but, my gosh, every single one is an achievement.
Once you climb a Giant’s Head hill there is usually a sign prompting you to turn around and look at the view. If you have any breath left at that moment, it will be immediately taken away as stunning Dorset scenery surrounds you in every direction.
It’s moments like those that make you feel alive as a runner. It doesn’t matter how hard the hills are, how much your legs are protesting, nor how unforgiving the sun might be. When you see those views, you are reminded of exactly why you run and just how alive it can make you feel.
Poles are still recommended though.
In classic White Star style, Giant’s Head Marathon comes in over distance (ish) and finishes with a steep hill climb before a pounding downhill over a field and through a stony hedge section before returning to Sydling St. Nicholas and the colourful display of White Star Running flags.
I ran through the finish line, hand-in-hand with two friends of mine, having gone through an adventure forged through resilience, good conversation and stunning views. It should also be said that the support at the aid stations and from the course marshals was at the highest calibre for a trail marathon and kept everyone well hydrated and encouraged throughout.
Giant’s Head Marathon is a challenge, but it’s meant to be, and the difficulties that the hills presented on course always came with a reward that far surmounted the heights that us runners had to climb.
For me, it’s summited to the top as one of my all-time favourite marathons and, if you can scurry to get a place come launch day, I highly recommend it to runners from all walks (jogs) of life.