On the 2nd July 2022 I ran the Lullingstone parkun which was the 305th event held at the venue, my 85th parkrun and 20th different course I'd attended.
When researching different parkrun events for tourism purposes there's a sublist of events that sit under the term 'must visit'. Whilst each event is unique in its own right there are certain events that have a special characteristic that make them stand out from the rest. In the case of Lullingstone it's the events reputation as one of the UKs toughest courses that make people travel from all over the country in order to conquer it's proven challenge.
For me, it was the lure of the challenge, but also the fact that I needed an 'L' as part of the alphabet challenge, it's also a Kentish run I'd not completed and it was number two on my NENDY list (Nearest Event Not Done Yet). It was also a course that my Dad had previously run and so I had a subconscious goal of wanting to beat his time - which sadly as events transpired was something I failed to do.
As I thought I knew majority of the way to Lullingstone by car, I had setup Google Maps on my phone to follow in the event I got lost. I didn't pay it too much attention and so failed to heed it's warnings when it tried to direct me any other way than the M25. I carried on the way I knew and hit traffic as soon as I pulled onto London's greatest carpark. I always leave in plenty of time, so at first I wasn't too concerned, but as the traffic crawled forever slower I started to let the anxious mind nearly talk me into a last minute plan B. Convinced that I wasnt going to make it I tried to visualise the courses I could get to from my current location and very nearly made a beeline for Malling as I'd be able to scoot down the M20 where the traffic situation was much more fluid. Instead, I stuck it out and was rewarded shortly after the M20 turnoff when the traffic started to flow again and I could continue on my way. Even so, instead of arriving at the planned 8:30 time, I arrived at 8:50 which didn't give me much time to scout the course and have a pre-event warmup.
The carpark was busier than I thought it was going to be, but still had plenty of room. You can pay for parking with cash, or on your mobile phone which I had already prepared by downloading yet another parking app on my phone the day before. £1.90 allows visitors use of the carpark for the whole day which is great value in anyone's book. From the car park itself you can't really see too much as there is a line of trees and bushes hiding the course from view.
Once you've navigated through one of the pathways that lead from the carpark to the country park itself you soon see that the reputation for being a hilly course is pretty accurate. Ahead of you lies an imposing view across a field that continues to go up and up.
I wasn't quite sure where the start was, but there was a steady stream of people making their way up the hill via a footpath on the left hand side of the field. Footpath might be overdressing it slightly, it was merely a flattened down route of long grass that gave people easier access to the rest of the field.
No sooner had I arrived at the start, a short way up - the first timer briefing was called. There were a healthy number of first timers and we listened intently as the guy doing the talking started off with 'thank you for coming to Lullingstone which as you can see is one of Kent's flattest courses', or words to that effect. We laughed ironically, yeah right! Things did eventually get back onto more a more serious tone with the general advice being to take your time and don't worry about the clock.
That was already my plan to begin with. I wanted to run as far as I could and push myself to keep going. I'd ran two tough courses at Uckfield and Queen Elizabeth and had regretted after both events that I had walked when I should have carried on going. I knew it was going to be inevitable here, but wanted to postpone it for as long as possible.
From the start we ran slightly uphill but across the field with the carpark downhill to the right. We were aiming for the treeline ahead where we turned left and uphill following the trees around and climbing the whole way.
I took it nice and steady, the further up we went the harder it was on the legs, but I still had plenty in the tank. Once we'd got to the top of the treeline we took a left turn, again taking us upward towards the woods in the distance. I felt good at this point, gaining confidence the further up we went. Afterall the closer to the top we got the closer to the downhill parts we were!
Once we'd made it to the woods, the course turned right into the trees. I was expecting it to flatten out at this point and was rudely awakened as the trail path steepened up and began to climb up even more. I did stop briefly at this point, through surprise or frustration but it was a fleeting moment and I started running again almost straight away. Further up again we went until the welcome sight of a purple hi-vis jacket of a volunteer appeared ahead.
We were told beforehand that the Marshall in the woods signalled the top of the hill and that things were downhill for the rest of the way. Indeed, there were echoes of Queen Elizabeth as the trail path took a sudden downward turn and the fun of running downhill began.
The path reached the end of the trees and took us left, bringing us back out onto the path we'd left to enter the woods. As I turned left and started bounding down the hill I felt a pop in the calf of my left foot. I'd had a similar issue at the end of last year and knew that it wouldn't be going away anytime soon but I was okay for the time being. It was sore, but I felt I could keep running for the time being.
Running downhill, a golf course in view to my left, the views across the valley to my right were beautiful. The course meanders for a little before taking another dip downhill via an out and back section. It was the run back up the hill where I felt something else pull in my calf and forced me to stop running and slow down to a walk. I ended up walking the whole return leg of the out and back section which ended with a short burst through a leafy, green tunnel/alleyway type section that comes out opposite the start and at the bottom of the line of trees that returns you back up the hill for the start of the second lap.
My run was over at that point but I didn't want to quit without registering a visit. I had to make it to the end whatever I did and whatever it took. It wasn't about time, as nice as it is to see a shiny new PB, whether you walk, run out jog parkrun is inclusive to all irrespective of ability.
So my second lap consisted of an awkward limp/hobble/walk back around the course admiring the views and taking photos along the route.
One of the main reasons I chose to run this event when I did was to coincide with the lavender season. Next door to the country park is a lavender farm which blooms at certain times of year. According to the lavender farm website late June - to late July is the perfect time and so I tried to tailor my schedule according. From the course you could see the adjacent fields in the near distance, vibrant and awash with violet. I suspect that I was a couple of weeks premature from seeing it at its most perfect but it was still well worth timing my visit for.
I finished 71st out of a field of 78 parkrunners with a time of 44:41. It was my slowest recorded parkrun time which I was disappointed with obviously but these things cannot be helped. As I said above, if I was concerned about the time I could have left the course unfinished and returned again another day when my injury has healed. But I'll definitely be back to beat the course that broke me to set a more reflective time - all being well!