Friday, 3 September 2010

Ridgeway Challenge

So it was that after only 4 weeks following on from my first  100 miler I was back on the start line for another ultra. This one the Ridgeway Challenge was 87 miles in length and follows the oldest road in Britain (possibly Europe) that dates back 5000 years. It starts at Ivinghoe Beacon on the Chilterns and is  just a 15 minutes drive from my door step. It finishes in the little village of Avebury (outside Swindon). Being a National Trail it is very well waymarked throughout with the distinct White Acorn sign making navigation that much bit easier. However that didn't mean that you didn't have to pay attention and with so many footpaths, bridalways and byways intersecting the Ridgeway it is entirely possible to go off route as we found out!

I'm getting more use to the start line of ultras these days with their very low key almost non-eventful type feel but there is still an underlining buzz of excitement. Ivinghoe Beacon is some what exposed on the top as you would expect with the wind whipping up good and proper. So the talk on the start line was whether one was wearing too much or too little. As always once you get going it always tends to be the former as you heat up and need to strip back the layers.

The actual start was bizzare and reminded me of the start of the grand national (weird I know). The organiser struggled to make himself heard or get everyone back behind the imaginery line and then everyone just set off without so much as a go, hoot or hollar. Mrs Disco Stu aka the wife got some great photos of the first descent and ascent as we all set off on our way (I'm on the left in the bright green T and blue shorts).

The first descent (image courtesy of Mrs Disco Stu)
The first ascent (image courtesy of Mrs Disco Stu)

To CP1: Distance from start 10.5 miles; finishing at Wellhead Farm (Wendover). 1hr 45mins
The first section was one I was familar with having run it a few times before. This was nice and enabled me to relax and not worry about navigation. I was running in the field that started at 12 pm. 30 or so other runners had opted for the earlier 10am start with an extended 28 hr cut off as opposed to 26hrs for us. In total a 100 or so runners were attempt this Ridgeway.

For the most part of this section I used it to check the vital signs and how well I had recovered from the TR24 four weeks ago. How were the feet...the ankles... the legs. All signs were good (at this stage). However my stomach didn't feel 100% but I was carb loading on pesto turkey pasta at 10 in the morning which was probably something to do with it.

I was aiming for an average 10 minute pace on the first two sections and whilst it started slower than that the pace picked up and I did indeed reach CP1 in exactly the time printed on my pace band. Game on :-) There was an array of sugary treats on offer. I grabbed 2 mini flap jacks and went on my way into Wendover, up the highstreet (see right) and started the climb to the top of coombe hill using my power walk to good effect catching two in front who were running up abet very slowly.  

To CP2: 16.8 miles; Whiteleaf Hill. 2hrs 50mins
Section two is a lovely stretch of tree lined woodland trails which wind around, up and over the Chilterns. The pace stayed in the 10 mpm zone and I thoroughly enjoyed this part which finished with an extremely steep long climb to the top of Whyteleaf hill where CP2 awaited us and table full of goodies. Whilst there were sandwiches on offer I thought it was a little early to hit the savoury snacks so opted instead for a few mini Mars bars and a bit of banana. I was still on target for an 18 hr finish but that wasn't going to last surely...

To CP3: 24.5 miles; Kingston Blount. 4hrs 15mins
The third section was a blast with a short but fun down hill section down to Princes Risborough then on to the main road for a bit before it diverted back onto the trail and across a series of wheat fields linking onto the Icknield Way. It was on the road section that it seems the Ridgeway had already taken it first casulty. I passed a chap with an MdS tattoo on his calve so I commented that I'm sure he was wishing for a bit more sand. anyway he said that he was already thinking of dropping at the midway point in Goring. I was taken back that he had decided this so soon into the race with still 5-6 hrs til he got to Goring but I guess if your head isn't in the right place which his didn't appear to be then perhaps it's for the best and you live to fight another day. I encouraged him as best I could before going off on my way.

The next part included a few climbs but nothing too serious (that was still to come). It was on this section that I got talking to a guy called Ian who was running his third ultra, his second being the 145m Grand Union canal race earlier in the year. What amazed me is that before that his only other ultra was a 50 miler and he hadn't run a marathon before either. That's pretty hardcore by anybody's standards and quite refreshing to hear that you don't necessarily have to run a marathon to up your game and give ultras a go, which really breaks from conventionally thinking I feel (apart from you Nick!) Anyway Ian was a great guy and really good company to run with and so we plodded along chatting about ultras and all things running. This helped to pass the time and take my mind off the miles and the slight fatigue I could feel in my legs.

By this stage the pace had now dropped well below 10mpm as the miles wore on and was probably nearer 11mpm. The end part of this section was a very straight wide trail with quite poor footing due to the ruts. CP 3 was a swift affair only stopping to gulp some lemon squash and grab a few nibbles and on we (Ian and I) went.  

To CP4: 31.7 miles; Swyncombe Church. (time unknown)
The start this section was more of the same straight trail that I was very familar withtraining prior training run on this part of the Ridgeway. However once past Watlington I was on new ground with no previous knowledge of what was to come. A few km further along the trail actually turned off left (a real rarity!) and proceeded to climb up and up. However what goes up must come down and we were rewarded with a great downhill section which at this stage of the race I was still able to thoroughly enjoy and brought a massive smile to my face. The the reward for this was CP4 which sat at the top of a short sharp climb which I power walked up. What I heard next was music to my ears "would you like a cup of tea" said the very kind Marshall in her caravan. Not only that, I got a buttered fruit bun and jam sandwiches to go with it too! :-) At that precise point I didn't want to be anywhere else as I devoured the bun and sandwiches and tasted every sweet drop of tea. It's a very British thing I know but there really is no better remedy when you need a pick me up than a good cuppa! We took a bit of time at CP4 as what was lay ahead was a tough 12m section (the longest of the race) before we would reach the half way point at Goring. Looking back now I think Ian wanted more time at CP4 and I'm feeling a little guilty now that I perhaps pushed him outta there quicker than he would of liked. I'm a firm believer though in keeping moving forward and whilst I could have happily stayed for a few more buns and tea we were here to run the ridgeway.

To CP5: 43.7 miles; Goring On Thames. 8hrs 7mins.
Time wise things well going very well and whilst we had dropped our pace we were still on schedule against the CP splits on my pace band. An 18hrs finish was still on. Section 5 was without doubt where things got difficult for the first time (for both of us). I was thinking clearly and knew what i wanted to do but that didn't mean that my legs would obey. However we continued to push a 11mpm pace which to a racing road snake is gonna sound awfully slow boardering on crawling but to us it felt like a good maintained effort.

The scenery and terrain on this section was great including cutting through crop fields (see left) and back to what I really love which is narrower twisting trails which keep the mind alive and focused on every step. It included the famous (so I'm told) Grim's Ditch which is a series of ancient defensive earthworks. To me it was an ultra runnable trail and the smile was firmly back on my face as I led the way and we pushed on. It was a super 4km stretch which at the end of it took us within a stones throw of the River Thames but you couldn't (yet) see it.

A very long 2km later and having gone through a church yard and cementary (see below - that's Ian) we were on the final stretch into Goring on Thames through fields right beside the Thames. This final stretch certainly did 'stretch' and felt like ages which is always the way when you are anticipating a stop ahead where we would get hot food and warm clothes. The temperature was certainly dropping by now.

Before we reached CP5 I had a lovely chat with my wife and 2yr old daughter. It's so nice to hear a familar voice and feel that warmth and closeness even when the reality is that you are still pushing and your legs are tired however at that point  we were flying (comparatively speaking) and getting ever closer.

Ian and I discussed and agreed that we should spend a good amount of time to eat, change into warm clothes and prepare for the night section. We arrived at CP5 with 8hrs 7mins on the clock having run 44 miles. And on my pace band was 8hrs 8mins! We were early ;-) and still on track for an 18hr finish, however I was certain this wouldn't continue because for one I don't think I had accounted for a 1/2 hr stop in my calculations nor the climbs that lay ahead.          

To CP6: 52.4 miles; Bury Down. 10hrs45mins.
So having thoroughly enjoyed a baked potatoe with beans and cheese, choclolate, jelly beans, and cola I was refuelled and changed into my night gear for what would be a very long night. We went over the Thames bridge and up the road to be met by a T junction with not a single Ridgeway sign in sight! Had we gone the wrong way!? Time to consult the map which had stayed in the bottom of my bag until now (such are the extremely good waymarkers throughout). We were indeed on track and proceeded on our way out of the town and onto a country road that passed by some very nice homes.

This road continued for a good 2km before it became trail and started to gradually ascend up and up. Our pace since starting out again was far slower than it had been before the rest, and it didn't feel like things were going to change in a hurry. It was time to get the head down and settle in for a long night ahead. I had studied the map in the days before the race and knew that the next 3 sections between CP5 and 8 was one continuous trail stretching some 26miles. That's a marathon in the dark on one trail rarely deviating left nor right having already covered over 40 miles. Plus the surface was a mix of hard chalk or very compacted mud so not very forgiving on the feet. I kinda knew it was gonna be tough and we weren't dissapointed!

There was nothing else terribly eventful on section 6 apart from being stopped by the police who asked what we were doing! We replied and was probably not the answer they were expecting but they didn't question it, enquired if we had a support vehicle to which we said no and we set off on oir way.

We reached CP6 where the big event was Hot Dogs and Hot Chocolate! The marshalls really were out doing themselves on every check point. When Ian and I arrived we were the only runners there so put our feet up (well I did anyway) for 5 minutes or so. However we were soon being joined by others so had to make hay whilst the moon shined and get outta there. This yo-yo-ing of runners at CPs happened all night and so it felt that we were neither making up nor losing ground on those around us. At least that is how it felt but I haven't seen the results yet so can't be certain.

To CP7: 61.5 miles; Sparsholt Firs. (time unknown)
We left CP6 at 10:45 and in just one section had dropped 45 minutes on the 18hr pace. However this was mainly in part to the extended stop at Goring rather than the snails pace that I at least seemed to be going. The focus now then was to see if we could keep going at the same pace without dropping more time and finish  below 19 hrs. I was quite confident that we would do so.

Only two things stick out in my mind on this section - one was Ian and I following this guy who was off in the distance with a shining bright red light on his backpack. We became it seems so mesmorised by it that we missed a left turn and strayed off the Ridgeway for half a mile only realising our mistake when we came to a crossroads in the trail with no markers of any kind bar a single footpath up through a field. Out with the map for the second time it was not clear where we were so were none the wiser as to whether we were off track or not. We then saw the shining headlights of others across to our left on a different trail passing a monument. Upon consulting the map again they were indeed in the right place and we weren't. Luckly the aforementioned footpath took us straight back onto the Ridgeway and we continued on our way as if nothing had happened. Phew.

The second incident was a runner we approached nearing CP7 who had a foil blanket wrapped round his bare legs. It was pretty chilly by this point and had gone midnight. His friend running with him said that he was in bad shape and suffering from mild hyperthermia. I wasn't surprised especially at the pace they were going. That's the problem with walking in that you just don't warm up the muscles enough. We reached CP7 and informed the marshalls who sent someone down to recover him. I imagine his race was over but you never know. A good cuppa can work wonders! As it did for me at CP7 together with more marmite and jam sandwiches plus the most delicious chocolate marbled cake ever, plus a jordans bar to go. Was there no end to their hospitality!  

To CP8: 69.4m; Charlbury Hill. 15hrs 15mins
As far as pace was concerned I was starting to lose interest in whether we would make 19hrs or not. I still thought it possible but with the Garmin dying at 60miles we had less idea whether we had to push on or just continue plodding to make it. Quite frankly garmin or no garmin it wouldn't have mattered. I was moving as fast as I could which was a little slower than Ian. I'm sure if he did push on ahead he could have finished faster. We were both grateful of the company of one another and working as a team as we had done since the third section certainly got us to this point faster than we would have otherwise done on our own.

We finally made it to CP8 and was met with a roaring camp fire (or was that CP7!?... To be honest I'm not sure as my memory is a little hazy). What I do remember is what I ate (as usual)... More marmite sandwiches, hot choc and creamed rice pudding which really hit the mark :-P

To CP9: 79.9 miles; Barbury Castle. 18hrs.
This next section up to CP9 was without doubt the hardest of the whole race in part because it was also the second furthest at 10 miles, although talk on the RW forum after suggested it was nearer 11. Whatever the distance it went on and on, and many runners were broken by the constant climbs and never ending fields. There were though some awesome descents which I was still able to enjoy and let gravity do most of the work.

I think but can't be sure that this section took us just under 3hrs to complete, perhaps around 2:45. It wasn't actually bad going when I read others blogs that it took them 5hrs. Ian and I were still running every part that didn't involve a climb and we were keeping a rhythm about our running that kept us going and edging ever closer to the end.

We finally made it to CP9 which was at the top of a 3km continuous climb along Smeathe's Ridge. By this time the sun was rising and the head torch was off. A new day and we had made it through the night in one piece :-) The danger now was thinking that with a mere 6m to the finish that it was job done. However having covered 80 miles in 18hrs the last 6m was gonna be far from easy.  

To Finish: 87miles; Avebury. Time ???
What gave us hope of a fast finish was the encouraging words of one of the marshalls at CP9 who said it was all downhill from here. Music to our ears however this fella evidently hadn't actually run it and couldn't have been more wrong. After a short downhill it was all up again! Argh. Ian still had the pace on me as he had done for the past few hours but I pushed on as best I could.

And then disaster struck as a poorly angled Ridgeway waymarker sent us the wrong way off down a steep field when in fact we should have gone straight on. Realising our mistake once we got to the bottom we then had to climb back up taking the road which we thought (wrongly) would take us to where we needed to be. We ended up exactly where we started and probably wasted a good 20 minutes. Argh. And by now we were getting more than a little concerned that the 20hr mark was creeping up on us. To have it slip away from you when for a very long time it looked like we would go sub 19hrs was a little frustrating but if we pushed we thought we would do it.

The footing on this final section was the worst it had been at any point along the whole Ridgeway. The ruts were really deep and narrow so you couldn't run in them so instead you had to skip across the tops of them hopping from one side to the other to find any flat ground that you could of which there was little. The end had to be close now.

The end of the race didn't in fact finish on the Ridgeway but instead cut off short and down into the village of Avebury however we weren't exactly sure what we were looking for. I had spotted a village off to the right as we desended down the Ridgeway but not knowing any landmarks meant we were none the wiser if in fact this was Avebury or not. But hang on a minute, what are those illuminous yellow arrows pointing right off the trail and towards the village... Could they just be... Just maybe... We still weren't actually sure even when I noticed the running IMP brand name on the arrrows. It had to be surely.... and after consulting a nearby local map it was indeed Avebury ahead of us with a sign saying 0.5 miles!!! it was such a good feeling. We passed a farm yard and onto firm ground for the first time in many hours. Avebury is a tiny village and no sooner had we entered it we were nearing the finish. I quickened the pace with the addrenline pumping charging for the line but it didn't feel right and not in the spirit of what we had been through so I slowed so as not to come in front of Ian and we crossed the (imaginery) line together. It was over. Our numbers were taken, and our official time given - 19hrs37mins. We collected our medals; mine was a finsher medal. Ian got 3rd place in the male over 40s category! Way to go my friend :-) and very well deserved. I was dead pleased with going sub 20 as this was my original target before I got carried away with  goal pace and spreadsheets!

Like every other ultra I've done the finish area and atmosphere was a no frills affair with not an ounce of bravado in the tiny hall which was mostly taken up with runners bags in the middle and just enough room to mill around the edges. I had my finisher photo taken by the organisers and then went about freshening up with a few baby wipes! I actually felt in remarkably good shape. My feet were fine with not a single blister or hot spot. Love the Injinjis and innov8 combo!! A definite winner. I enjoyed a bacon sandwich and chatted with Ian about the race and how we wouldn't do it again (yeah right!). See you next year! :-D

Overall this was an amazing event and you really couldnt ask for anything more from an ultra as it had everything. The organisation was first class. The CPs were the best I've experienced which were all ran by local running clubs. And at every time of day and night they were smiling, unbelievably encouraging and a real credit to the ultra scene. Of course what matters most is the course itself and you really couldn't ask for more of a contrast than what is thrown at you on the Ridgeway. The first half was utter delight the second was utter hell and I wouldn't of wanted it any other way. We take on these challenges for that very reason and I didn't leave this one disappointed.

That's it as far as ultras are concerned in 2010. My next race is the Royal Parks half marathon in October where if I can get some speed back will try and break sub 1:30 for the first time. However this might be a tough ask considering my lack of short fast running of late. Then it's picking out a few key races in 2011. The Lakeland 100 might be one, and/or perhaps the ONER. The Fellsman will also definitely be worth a return. But for now that enough miles for a while whilst I let my body repair and come back well rested and stronger. Unless of course I decide to ditch running and take up golf!! LOL.


  1. Great write up. Definitely up for it again next year.

  2. Mate you completely captivated me..Think I will have to consider this race next year along with the others already on the agenda.

    Be good to catch up at a race next year or arrange a long run.

    Such a great achievement. Even more so considering TR24 4 weeks previous...

  3. Nice work, Disco Stu!!!!

    I didn't notice any handhelds in the pics. Do most runners over there use hydration packs?

    All Day!

  4. Nice work Disco Stu
    Good to see you've captured the ups and downs of Ultra running, and that you look back on them with equal positivity.
    Best of luck for next year.

  5. Cheers chaps.

    Ken- yeah very few run with bottles actually in their hands. I had a hydration pack which worked very well. Many others also have similar or the Raidlite backpacks where the bottles side in and out the side pockets very easily when you need them. Quite a few with waist packs too. I think the main reason for not wanting bottles in hands is so you have your hands free to grab a map or compass easily for navigation purposes. Luckily I didn't need the compass as I'm pretty useless with one but map was essential! with your very well marked trails in N.America not really an issue

  6. Great write up Stu, a not uneventful run, but you handled the slight navigational errors well and great you were still strong at the end. Amazing to think your were covering a trail laid 5000 years ago!

    How did you find running a large section of it with another runner (Ian). I always find this useful on the very long ones, keeps mind of the worst of the bodily aches.