Ridgeway Challenge 86 Miles

imagesThe Ridgeway Challenge was a bit of a last-minute entry as I was looking around for something to do over the Bank Holiday. Earlier in the year I’d run the Ridgeway over a couple of weekends as part of my personal project to run all the National Trails. So I was familiar with the route – it’s fairly flat and runnable, (compared to the mountains) navigation is easy with it being a National Trail and I’d heard good things about the event. The race was full, but I put my name down on the waiting list and within 24-hours had been offered a place by Tim Mitchell the Race Director – so I paid the entry fee and was in, Bank Holiday weekend sorted.

It would be fair to say that I hadn’t tapered for the event, in the previous 4 weeks I’d done the following:

  • Aug 2nd: Peak Skyrace, (30 miles /7,000′)
  • Aug 8th: 45-mile recce of the second half of the Ridgeway
  • Aug 15th: Ultra Tour of the Peak District, (60 miles / 10,000′)
  • Aug  22nd: Green Man Ultra Midnight Express, (44 miles / 3,500′)

This being the case I wasn’t expecting much – I thought that if I could go sub-20 hours for the 86 miles then that would be a pretty decent result – it would also be hovering relatively close to my 100-mile PB which I set back in 2012 on a looped-course at Run 24.

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The Start

Bank Holiday weekend rolled-around, and a train strike was announced which meant I had to catch a slightly earlier train, (more on the train strike later) so I was up at 05:00 and on the train at 07:00 heading towards Tring. A couple of changes, including a short hop across London on the tube found me at registration with a few minutes to spare. I barely had time to pin my number on, walk up the hill to the start of The Ridgeway before we were off, no time to think or get twitchy – it was a case of rock-up and start running.

The weather was warm and sunny with broken cloud, maybe a little too warm. Having not hung around at the start, and not knowing anyone racing I decided to get my head down and focus a bit. The aim was to get to the halfway point at Goring under 9 hours which would give me an easier 11 hours to cover the final 44 miles.

I’d set my Garmin “Virtual Partner” to 13:45 / mile pace which I thought would be the average pace I’d need to maintain to finish under 20 hours.

The Ridgeway is pretty enough, very rolling and runnable. It’s quite narrow in places and there’s a few bottlenecks but that was what I needed and slowed me down a bit. I ran my own pace through the first 10 miles to Wendover and was 20 minutes ahead of my Virtual Partner when I arrived at CP1 after 10.5 miles. A quick stop at Wendover to refill water and then up the familiar high street to where the “Country to Capital” race starts and then back onto the Ridgeway.

I made steady progress through marathon distance at CP3, then 50k done at CP4 in 6 hours and still feeling good. Shortly after leaving CP4 though I decided to quit… At around 18:45 I’d had enough, the light was failing, the weather looked like it might rain, I was tired and a bit sore – what was the point? It had been a big month and I’d run the second half earlier that month and was a bit non-plussed about the terrain to be honest.

So I stopped, fished out my phone and looked up the train times from the station at the halfway point at Goring which was about 10 miles away. The last train went at 20:42, it was now just after 18:45 – hmmm, that was going to be tight.  So I made a deal with myself, if I could get to Goring by 20:15 then I’d drop and get the train home – otherwise I’d have to run the remaining 44 miles to the finish.

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The Route

The minutes ticked-by and it was soon obvious I wasn’t going to make the train. Bugger – that meant I’d have to run another 44 miles tonight. But a few minutes later my attitude changed, the sunset was a fantastic blood-red over the Thames, it looked like it might not rain all night and I accepted my fate, fished out my torch from my backpack and jogged into the halfway CP at Goring a few minutes before 21:00, so just under  my 9-hour target to halfway.

When racing, I get in-and-out of CPs as quickly as possible – it’s easy to get comfortable and that’s when things go wrong. After refilling my bottles, necking some coke and grabbing some chocolate I was back out on the trail. By now it was pitch-black and I was very definitely on my own.

I quickly realised I’d made the right decision to carry-on and was loving the dark and running with a torch. Having recently converted to using a handheld torch instead of a headlamp I can honestly say it’s transformed my night running. The terrain which I’d remembered as boring was transformed at night and I was moving smoothly and quickly over it, probably not much slower than if it had been light and I’d been fresh.

I started overtaking people shortly after Goring and spent the whole night steadily moving through the field, I don’t think anyone overtook me after halfway.  Most people were running in groups through the night but I like to run alone and so moved quickly past people exchanging a few comments as I passed. The night CPs were also great, some making a runway landing strip out of glowsticks for the incoming runners.

While I’m talking about the CP’s – they were some of the best I’ve ever seen at a race. Having someone take your bottles and take care of filling them while I dealt with food was great and something I’ve seen in the USA, we also did that at the CP I marshalled at Lakeland 100. Whevener I got into a CP people were all over me asking what I wanted / needed which was great when you’re quite focussed on getting in-and-out. Having been on the other side I know that the volunteers respect that you might not be there to chat and want to stop as little as possible. But it’s alway great to thank them and wave a cheery “Thanks Everyone” as you leave.

Evening became early morning, and as I approached the final CP at Barbury Castle it got light and I arrived at the final CP with around 17h15m on the clock and 6-7 miles to go… Barring a complete disaster, sub-20 hours was in the bag, but now – could I make that sub-19 hours? It wasn’t far to go, mostly downhill but on bashed legs and with a particularly nasty, rutted section coming up I wasn’t sure but set off to try.

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The Finish

Again the minutes ticked-by, and then I hit the rutted section and was reduced to stumbling/hobbling along the deep tracks until finally hitting the turn-off from the Ridgeway to the finish. It was 06:30, 30 minutes to get to the finish but how far was it? It turns out it wasn’t that far – maybe 1.2 miles or-so and so a little after 06:45 I hit the final bit of road into Avebury and put on a bit of a sprint over the finish line at 06:46… My sub-20 hour goal had been smashed by nearly 75 minutes, I’ll take that.

I stayed at the finish for 5 or 6 hours, had a bit of a lie-down, lots of water and a few cups of tea chatting to other finishers and watching people come in. Eventually those of us who had the foresight to pack booze in their drop bags broke-out the Strongbow, Stella and Old Speckled Hen and got stuck into it! After getting a lift back to the train station we dropped into a pub for a few more beers before I eventually got on a train back to Cardiff, arriving home tired and slightly tipsy late Sunday afternoon.

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The Medal

It was another brilliant weekend, I’m really enjoying putting a bit more focus into running long these days. While I enjoy chatting to people en-route, I have a pace and style that doesn’t seem to match most people – i.e. start slow, stay slow – and I don’t get a lot slower at night or later in the race. And I enjoy running on my own, there’s plenty of time afterwards for banter and chat. It’s a lesson I learnt at Tahoe 200 when I should have run my own race and one I recently remembered and put into practice.

The rest of 2015 and 2016 is shaping-up nicely, a few big feature races are already booked to keep me focussed and on the straight-and-narrow. Things seem to be slowly coming back together after a bit of a random year since Tahoe 200 which was exactly 12 months ago. I feel I need to go back to that one, but not next year – it clashes with something equally epic!

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