Simon Pryde reports from this year’s Ridgeway muti-stage Ultra race.
He was in tears when he ran past me. But he still had twelve miles to go. Twelve energy-sapping, slippery, muddy, hilly miles.
It was Day 3 of the Druid Challenge, an undulating 84 mile route from Ivinghoe Beacon near Tring in Hertfordshire to Wroughton, near Swindon, along a chalky, boggy trail called the Ridgeway. “He” was the leader, an ex-marine called Justin. The elite athletes started an hour after the main pack each day, and on this, the final stage, I was quite pleased it had taken him until 16 miles to catch me. Justin, on his way to posting his phenomenal winning time, had injured his hip. Badly. Most people would have stopped. He carried on, barely slowing, churning out 8 minute miles on extremely difficult terrain. I gave him some words of encouragement as he passed, and he acknowledged me with a wave, and a comment about “putting the kettle on” for me. One of the great things about these multi-day ultras, I discovered, is the camaraderie.
Two days earlier I’d nervously rocked up at the start, dumped my overnight gear in a van, and joined the group of around 100 competitors waiting for the pre-race briefing.
Running a multi-day event for the first time you’re bound to make mistakes. I’d made my first a few days earlier. An email from the organisers requested those capable of finishing the first stage (29 miles) in under 5 hours should start with the elite group. This was important, as anyone starting earlier and going too quickly might find checkpoints not yet ready and, worse, might arrive at the overnight stop, a primary school in Watlington, before the children had left. This would not be a good idea, as it’s not appropriate to arrive at a primary school at “home time” panting, sweating and demanding a rub down (particularly when you work for the BBC).
With a marathon time of 3 hours 23 minutes under my belt, I’d felt that 5 hours for 29 miles was well within my reach – even though I’d be considering the next two days, and not going flat out. So I watched as the slowest group, and then the intermediate group departed. “Those intermediates look pretty lean and fit”, I mused, as they trotted off into the distance.
This left me with around 25 athletes awaiting our start at midday, atop the Beacon, on a chilly, breezy but nonetheless not unpleasant day. The Race Director sent us on our way – and off shot Justin and most of the others at a ludicrous pace. It wasn’t long before I was last, doing 9.30 – 10 minute miles. The loneliness of the experience was interrupted at around 4 miles as the leaders came past me. They’d taken a wrong turn, and ended up behind everyone else. In fact, one of the quicker athletes went wrong TWICE more, and ended up running more than 31 miles that day. Oops. The trail was pretty well sign-posted, but you had to concentrate, and I guess the faster you’re going, the easier it is to go wrong. Soon I was on my own again. The terrain was a mixture of muddy paths, forest tracks and trails, interspersed with steep climbs and sharp descents. I reached the first checkpoint, where there remained a few pretzels, some sweets and drinks. I refuelled briefly. I had a few energy bars and gels for the three days, but “proper food” seems to be the popular sustenance for many. Upon some encouraging words from the checkpoint crew, I was off again. 10 miles, 15. Another checkpoint – and some other runners!! I’d at last caught up with some of the slower earlier starters. I’d only gone wrong once, climbing obliviously up a hill adjacent to the one I should have been ascending, somewhere near the Prime Minister’s country residence at Chequers, as it happened. So the presence of other runners was a huge reassurance. There were a couple of very hilly areas, and some of the paths were treacherously slippery, mainly because of the chalky constitution of the terrain. I’d slowed to over 10 minute miles, but felt fairly comfortable. I reached 20 miles, and then things began to feel very tough. The weather got colder, and there was a huge climb through a forest. I passed a few more runners and walkers, and was now beginning to realise the magnitude of what I’d taken on. The time ticked over four hours, and I eventually arrived at the last checkpoint. Time for the head torches to come out – and for my backpack strap to break. Not what a tired Tyne Bridge Harrier needed! (I was wearing my TBH vest, which will probably never recover. It’s properly manked up). Running (or rather standing still) repairs cost me time, but I eventually got underway again, head torch on, and the end of the stage only 6 miles away. The route here was thick with black mud, and extremely treacherous in the dark. I’d put my head torch on upside down which, whilst it hardly helped my cause, did at least spectacularly illuminate a bat. Thankfully I spotted the “turn right” sign, and arrived, at a trudge, at the school in Watlington where we were to spend the night.
It’s amazing what a decent meal (including 5 bags of crisps – well, you need to replace salt), a shower and a good kip can do (even if the cramped gym was a cacophony of snoring, farting and grunting from lights-out onwards), and, by 8 o’clock the next morning I might not have been raring to go, but at least the idea of running again was only marginally unthinkable.
Starting with runners of my own ability this time, I soon got into a rhythm, and was able to enjoy the company of fellow competitors. The miles go by much more quickly when you’re wittering on about the price of petrol with a chiropodist from Somerset, or assessing the quality of the X Factor judges with a fishmonger from Basingstoke. The terrain on day two wasn’t as hilly, which was bonus number one. Bonus number two was it was 2 miles shorter. Though I struggled a little in the middle, I got a new lease of life, and even managed a spurt (well, a cheerful stumbling trot, at least) when I spied the finish half a mile away, on a small hill. The day provided fine views of Didcot Power Station and an abandoned fridge, as well as some gorgeous rolling countryside and some red kites. (Okay, I didn’t see the red kites, I heard someone mention them later…. I tend not to absorb my surroundings as much as I ought to as I’m concentrating so hard on not tumbling comically and calamitously in the mud).
Starting earlier (the start times were 7, 8 and 9AM) meant finishing earlier. Which meant a few hours in Wantage, where Alfred the Great was born, and has a statue, don’t you know. I, unlike some, avoided the temptations of the beer festival being held next door (I think you should be allowed to take a mile off the next day for every pint you drink the night before). But myself and a few of my new pals (the social side of the event, and general friendly atmosphere, I really enjoyed) did find ourselves in the King Alfred (why did they call it that?) watching the footy scores come in, and indulging in fatty food, before returning to Wantage Leisure Centre (upgrade from primary school, I’d say) and having another meal almost immediately. Well, you’ve got to refuel properly. There were a couple of talks about the Marathon des Sables (or, if I was cynical, a couple of sales pitches from desert equipment manufacturers and personal trainers) laid on in the evening, which I attended while my quads cramped up and tiredness began to kick in.
The prospect of running 28 miles the next day was not, I confess, filling me with eager anticipation. My sleep was interrupted not only by concerns over the impending challenge but by The World’s Loudest Snorer, whose pneumatic drill impression kept me awake until somebody was sufficiently motivated to remove themselves from their sleeping bag and give him a sharp kick.
Spice was added to my challenge the next day by the fact I had to be on my pre-booked train from Swindon at a certain time. To be certain of making it, I’d need to finish in under 6 hours (I’d done 5.38 and 5.29 for previous days but this was really stepping into the unknown for me). I was in the middle group again, and off we went at 8AM. The enthusiastic brisk trots of the previous two days were gradually being replaced by limps, shuffles, waddles and other such inelegant methods of motion. I tried to keep going at steady eleven minute miles over more tough terrain, but after ten miles or so, despite copious refuelling at the first checkpoint, I began to slow down. Various aches and pains were really kicking in now. My left knee and ankle in particular were causing me problems, and I was overtaken by the Hungarian Powerwalking Champion (an intriguing competitor in an international field also containing a group of hardy-looking Venezuelans, a German couple and a chirpy Welshman whose vivid description of the kebab he was going to eat that night was a real boost). I tried to get back into a decent rhythm, aware that slowing down and walking too much would mean regaining momentum would be difficult. When Justin went by, I was really feeling the pain but he, and his near pursuers, inspired me as they pushed on. I do, however, think overtaking three of the quick lads up a hill for a “joke” was possibly an ill-conceived idea, given the desire I had to curl up in a ditch immediately afterwards. Keep chirpy, keep moving, GET THERE. I hit the last checkpoint, and there were only 7 miles left. My ankle hurt so much now I was wincing every step, and emitting pathetic little gasps and grumbles. You’d have been embarrassed if you’d seen me, you really would. At the last checkpoint, having resisted until then, I whacked a hefty dose of painkillers down my gullet and headed on. Last push. Big hill. 5 miles to go. My watch bleeps every mile and (you find you try all sorts of things to keep yourself motivated), I set myself the task of not looking at it again until it had bleeped twice (which would mean THREE miles left – a mere Parkrun!). When you’re so tired, repeating a simple, rhythmic mantra can help and, my newly structured goal in mind, I started muttering to myself, “two bleeps and a Parkrun… two bleeps and a Parkrun…. Two bleeps”… you get the picture.
I tried to keep running, through narrow lanes, a hamlet, a meadow, past a ruined castle… up ANOTHER big hill. Some Sunday morning walkers approached. They broke into applause, which was great, and very kind of them. “How are you feeling”, one asked, brightly. “Two bleeps and a Parkrun”, I spluttered at them, gurning manically, spit hanging from my chin, my eyes wild. They stopped applauding and moved off, quickly. 2 miles left. One-and-a-half. We left the Ridgeway, and we were on the road. A steep, quad-busting descent, and my ankle was screaming for me to stop. Half a mile to the end… and I overtook the Hungarian Power walking champ. Have that, Laszlo. The end was in sight, and it was an amazing feeling. The pain, momentarily, vanished, and I ran. I properly ran. Crossing the line was an extraordinary feeling. A medal was placed round my neck, and I admit, I cried a bit.
This was truly out of the comfort zone, and now I feel I know, just a little, what ultra-running is all about… and I take my hat off to those TBH Members who regularly do this (sometimes on their own, and on a whim). It’s also addictive, and, while at times I questioned whether I’d ever do another ultra and even contemplated pulling out of the Marathon des Sables in which I’m entered next year, it didn’t take long afterwards to start thinking about the next challenge.
Oh, and I did 5 hours 59 for day 3 and caught my train!
(I finished 48th overall in just over 17 hours).