Wimborne Athletic Club

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UK Ultra Trail Championships 2008 (Long Distance Ridgeway Challenge) 86miles

This race was to be run over the Ridgeway path which runs diagonally across the country from Ivinghoe Beacon in Hertfordshire and would finish in Avebury near Marlborough, Wiltshire a total of 86 miles. There would be a few water stations along the way (approximately every 10 miles) and the chance of some hot food at halfway. Prior to the race we had to let the organisers know whether we would be completing in under or over 23 hours which would decide our start time so that everyone would get the chance to run through the night. Oh and 9,000 feet of ascent along the way so maybe a few hills!

So I found myself climbing the beacon at midday on Saturday with 40 or so others to get to the start line. About the same number had started 2 hours before us and would be well on their way. The weather was very warm and conditions were clear as we could see for miles around, and it was hard to imagine the finish so far away, even though we all carried and had studied the maps beforehand. I had met up with a couple of friends earlier, Pat, who had helped me run ‘our’ part of the Ridgeway, and Jim, who I had met up with on a few of these long runs.

We started on time and everyone ran downhill except Jim and I, deliberately we were last off the hill travelling at a very slow jog. It was strange to see all these runners hare off down the chalky track but it was reassuring to know that many would tire earlier than me. Any advantage of height at the start was lost within a couple of hundred yards as we went downhill straightaway. I had decided that I would need to conserve as much energy at the start to save for later.

The weather now felt very hot and it was sunny but thankfully there was plenty of shade in most parts apart from the exposed hilltops. There was also a headwind which actually felt refreshing in the heat. We carried on over many hills, along ridges and through woods and splendid scenery until we reached the first checkpoint at about 11 miles in Wendover. We were still the last runners in the race. As we arrived at the checkpoint there was chaos as it was situated in a narrow lane opposite a church whilst a wedding was in progress and the bride arrived at the same time as us.

After grabbing some water and a Jaffa cake we wound through the middle of Wendover and backup another steep hill. From here the tracks started to get a bit more lumpy for a bit as we eventually ran through the grounds of Chequers at about 15 miles. At this point Jim decided he needed to slow a bit more so I decided to forge on ahead. I picked up the speed a little and entered even more steep hills but found myself starting to overtake people. I passed the checkpoint at 17 miles without stopping and overtook several people there. This checkpoint was at the top of a large hill in woodland near Princes Risborough and from there it would be mainly downhill to the next. I had a surge of energy and carried on at a steady speed and found myself passing people at regular intervals, some of whom had been on the earlier start.

After a couple more hills and a long descent I reached the 3rd checkpoint at about 23 miles. Again I only paused long enough to fill up my bottles with water and to ask the timing marshal how far ahead Pat was. I was surprised to hear he hadn't arrived at the checkpoint yet! This seemed to motivate me a bit more and despite the heat I carried on at a fairly steady pace.

The next 7 or 8 miles were on a rutted track which went over a couple of smaller hills but was generally flat. The path avoided most of the bigger hills at this point but at about 30 miles turned sharp left and over two very steep hills. At the top of the second was the 4th checkpoint at 32 miles. I was starting to flag as it had been a hot afternoon and I was feeling the results of my faster pace. I had overtaken many people but was starting to tire. I accepted the large mug of tea offered at the checkpoint and felt better. As I was about to leave I looked back down the hill and saw Pat on his way up. After some customary abuse and surprise that I was ahead of him I left to go ahead. He caught me up within a mile or so and we ran on together trying to keep to a run/walk strategy.

The next section would be the longest of the race to the halfway point at 43 miles. The first part was generally undulating until we turned right into Grims Ditch which is a large earthwork which runs down to the Thames for a few miles. This was pleasant running in the late afternoon as I started to get tired. The terrain was generally downhill for a few miles but very uneven, lots of tree roots, sticking out branches and dead trees to hurdle. At one point I found myself face down in the bushes at the side having tripped on a tree root, thankfully the landing was soft and all that was hurt was my pride.

At the end of the ditch the land flattened out into the Thames Valley and we followed the course of the river for about 5 miles to the halfway checkpoint.

Pat went a head again after a while and we were still passing runners, I found out later that these were the lead runners from the early start. The checkpoint was in a village hall at Goring and was a welcome sight just as it was starting to get dark There was lots of support here and a chance to get sorted out with our bags which had been brought here by the organiser. I stopped here only ten minutes or so. I had enough time to change my shirt, number and GPS, down a cup often and a Red Bull, grab my head torch, long sleeve top and a hat, have a chat with one or two others and leave. I declined the offer of a hot meal as I was still hot and a bit dehydrated and needed fluids more than anything. A lot of runners used this checkpoint as a long rest before the second half.

Pat and I left the halfway point together, crossed the river and started along the road which would lead us onto the track to climb up into the Downs. It was nearly dark and got even darker as we passed through woods and trees but I tried to keep my torch off as long as possible. We gradually climbed out of the valley again and onto dirt tracks which seemed to go up for ever (several miles actually). Pat went ahead again after a few miles and I knew I wouldn't see him till the end. I plodded on, seemingly going up all the time but eventually the ground evened out and started to undulate rather than climb. At about 50 miles the course turned right to go over Compton Downs. I took my time at each junction as my worst nightmare was getting lost, this may have cost me a little time but at least I could go on in confidence. I was extra careful here. I looked back and could see the lights of many head torches strewn across the hills behind and knew that if I slowed too much I would be overtaken my many others quite quickly.

A mile or two later I crossed under the A34 and up onto Bury Down where the 6th checkpoint was at about 52 miles. The track had become very wide by now and there were tracks crossing and recrossing all over the place which made navigation tricky and time consuming at times. Luckily the checkpoints were easy to spot as they were sited on top of hills.

I stopped at this checkpoint again for about 10 minutes, long enough for a chat, cup of tea, fill my bottles and to decline a hot dog. The course carried on over the hills, I am sure the scenery would have been lovely but all I could see was the lights of large towns and villages. I could see Wantage off to the right as the track wound its way over hills, through woods, across more tracks and the odd road. As I approached each car park or wooded area I could see cars parked, I passed several 'parties' going on late into the night and the odd supporter vehicle waiting for their runners. 

The weather was still warm and I was still sweating heavily, even in the middle of the night, but the wind had got up a lot and was blowing quite strongly into my face. This was hard going but nice as it cooled me down. At about 60 miles two other runners passed me slowly, they were running together and pushing each other on.

The next checkpoint was about 61 miles on Sparsholt Down and I again stopped for a few minutes for more tea, a bottle top up and to steal a few sweets. The marshals here were having a great time here and seemed not to be worried about the darkening sky and high winds. I passed the two runners again just after the checkpoint as they were resting for a few minutes in their supporters cars. I carried on into the wind and past more farms. I paused and checked my direction at every junction, I had heard stories of people going blindly straight on for miles unnecessarily because they had not checked.

After a couple more miles the heavens opened. I stopped under a tree at the top of a hill for a few minutes to sort myself out ‑ put on my long sleeve jacket and hat. This proved to be quite difficult under the circumstances. With the wind blowing, the rain sheeting down and in total darkness apart from a small head torch I tried to get moving as soon as possible. Soon afterwards the two runners I had passed again at the last checkpoint overtook me again. The track now was very wide and apart from the puddles which were growing, was quite good going ‑ either a chalky track or a grassy surface. As the rain increased, so did the puddles. The wind made it worse as I was just undulating over the hilltops at this point and there was little shelter apart from the odd wooded area.

Having crossed a few more roads and tracks I squelched my way into the 8th checkpoint at about 69 miles, it was about 3‑3.30am. This checkpoint was set at the top of Charlbury Hill and I felt sorry for the volunteers here. They were right in the thick of the weather, all huddled under umbrellas around a fire they had lit earlier. I sat down in a chair, shivering. I then stood up again as the chair had a puddle of water on it, not that it made much difference as I was soaked all over and freezing cold. I managed to slurp a bit of warm tea from a plastic cup and down a bag of crisps and stood up to go. I knew that if I hung around too long I would not start again and I also needed to get moving to warm up.

Back out onto the track again for a bit and then a bit of relief as there was a mile or so of road which took me over the M4 motorway and to the base of Liddington Hill. The path up the hill was very narrow and one foot in front of the other. Unfortunately by now it had developed into a very muddy stream and in my trainers I was sliding all over the place. It seemed to take ages to get to the top and when I got there I could not see an obvious path, I checked the map and followed a tree line in the general direction I needed to go. I was wading through long grass, hoping that I was alert enough to pick up on any signs. I kept stopping to check my direction and thankfully ended up on an obvious track.

The course was heavily rutted and extremely muddy, more than once I ended up to my knees in the stuff. I could not see what I was treading in, especially as I passed through several smelly farm yards, so eventually gave up and waded through whatever was there but it was extremely slow going. One competitor told me later that it took him 1/2 hour to cover one mile through part of this section. I persevered on at a slow pace and could not have gone any faster, the track went up and down hills which by now were just muddy torrents although the rain was starting to ease and the wind was not so bad on lower ground. At times I could see a large orange light on a hill many miles away.

As I went through this section the grey sky started to lighten as dawn approached and I was able to switch off my head torch. The morning was very damp and misty, the rain and wind had eased. The course wound round in a big loop until I found myself on a short stretch of road and then a sharp left back uphill again. There seemed to be one or two more supporters cars around so I supposed that there were others runners not far behind, I had not seen another competitor for 4 or 5 hours.

The climb was about a mile or so long followed by a long stretch across grassy fields to the next checkpoint which was bathed in the large orange light I had seen from so far away. This was at approximately 80 miles at the top of Barbury Hill. The rain had started again and the marshals were huddled in their cars. They offered me food but all theirs was soaking wet so I slurped another luke warm tea and carried on. I was told that not too many runners had gone through yet, the last 20 minutes before and I only had 6 miles to go. I was shivering in the cold and started out slowly.

I jogged slowly across the top of the hill, through Barbury Castle and carefully down the hill the other side. From there I climbed again back up on a track to Hackpen Hill. The going was fairly good at this point, a hard surface but I was finding it difficult to run for long periods as I had got two large blisters, one on each foot which had been aggravated by the wet. This combined with my tiredness meant I was operating at a jog/walk rate. Then the track worsened again to the deep ruts similar to before. Fortunately I could see where I was going this time although I probably was too cautious as I slowed again as I knew with tired legs I could easily end up on my backside. I looked back and could see several people around now, other runners and dog walkers in the early morning. I couldn't tell which was which in the misty gloom though.

At the top of Overton Down I turned off the Ridgeway to descend the mile or two down into Avebury. The track here was still hard going ‑ very chalky and slippery. I made my way down as quickly as I could and the track ended and turned into road for the last half mile or so. I could see another runner behind catching me quickly but I had no energy to fight him off and he passed me easily a couple of hundred yards from the end.

Once in Avebury I turned right to go into the grounds of the National Trust centre where there was a tent and a finish line. I was asked to cross the line before entering the tent where there were 3 or 4 runners who had arrived just ahead of me. The tent was running with mud and I was shivering violently from wet and cold and sat down to try and dry and warm up. Unfortunately there was no hot food but I managed some cold rice pudding and a piping hot tea. I was given an engraved medal and a handshake from the organiser for achieving 3rd place in my age category. A few more runners came in behind me and eventually I struggled up onto my feet, grabbed my bag and limped off to find Pat who had been waiting for me in his van. He had come in 2 hours before me. Jim was approximately 2 hours behind.

Overall an awesome event, top class marshals, food and checkpoints, scenery was magnificent during the day and the course was superb. The weather could have been a bit kinder ‑ from one extreme to another!

170 starters, 51 finishers, 1 ended up 15th overall, 3rd over 40.

Andy Horsley

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