I’d run The Ridgeway Challenge in 2010 and 2011, in fact, thinking about it, it must have been my longest run ever in 2010. So I’ve many memories – mainly about how this is a perfectly runnable course over lovely English countryside and it should be perfectly possible for me to run well on it. But tinged with memories of a really dull night section and slowing down through either injury (2010 – glute – 20:43) or boredom and getting lost (2011 – 19:46; don’t go into a field to pee unless you are awake enough to remember how to exit the field! 2 hours lost to, well, being lost in said field).
This time I wanted to do it justice; despite having signed up on the final date for entries about 11:58pm after a bit too much red wine (amazing how that wipes the memory of night running! Most people need to have their phones removed from them for safety after a few drinks, my weakness seems to be booking into ultras late at night). Waking up in the morning I looked properly at the calendar and realised rather than the two weeks I thought I had in between UTMR (110km in the Alps) and the Ridgeway I in fact had… 7 days. So whilst enjoying UTMR I needed to make sure I didn’t get too injured. As it happens I picked up an annoying sprained ankle which blew up when I got back to the UK (6 days to go…) and a run to Hampstead on the Wednesday had to be cut short (4 days to go…). So I did no exercise (yes, really) the Thursday and Friday to give it time to heal. I did consider taping it up to run but decided I’d too much the rest of the year to really hurt myself so if it needed taping on saturday I wouldn’t run. Woke up on Saturday – decided it didn’t hurt (remembering that everything will hurt if you focus on whether it hurts or not!) and didn’t think about it again.
On the train to Tring I bumped into a runner called Jason and we got talking about having done this race before (over half the field must have run this previously) and how our times were quite similar around 20 hours. I had a little crib sheet on my bag strap with the times and checkpoints for the female record (15:50) as I really thought it was breakable and if I was feeling good I would give it a go. In hindsight I should know myself a bit better and have the corresponding for my best time for the course as well – it’s better to see you’re beating the times into a checkpoint rather than watching them slipping away.
At the start, amongst other familiar faces, I met my friend Alan who’d travelled from where he now lives in Milton Keynes.
I’ve run a lot with Alan – in fact he introduced me to the long distance walkers’ association through which we’ve done many long training runs. Three weeks before we’d run the second half of the race from Goring to Swindon; as lovely as the British countryside is you have to get a train home from somewhere… could be worse, could be Slough. We had a great training run with a few stops on a fairly warm and sunny day – taking about 9 hours and catching-up-chat filling up the time. It was a relief to have run that stretch in the light and feeling comfortable – as my previous experiences had been at night; grumpy, exhausted and either lost/adding extra bonus miles or injured. Looking for finger posts in the middle of the night with a head torch has never been a skill of mine so it was reassuring to have a good sense of the night route for the event.
We were led up to the Ivanhoe Beacon for the noon start (there’s an earlier start of 10am for those taking more than 24 hours – with a cut-off of 28 hrs). The late start means it’s easy to get to Tring but I do hate it – I’m an early bird and would much rather less running at night; though it does mean everyone has a night section. Also the volunteers at this event are amazing – and with 16 hours between the first and last finisher I wouldn’t want them to be out any longer.
After a briefing from Race Director Tim Mitchell off we went, down the Beacon and pretty much continuing straight west to Avebury. The checkpoints are a nice 6-10 miles apart and although it was quite a warm and muggy day it meant you could refill water and food pretty often. I got to the first checkpoint at Wendover for 13:37 – so an ok 9 min miling pace. I was determined not to set off too quickly and enjoy overtaking people later. Also frankly with so little recovery time from UTMR my legs were a little heavy so there wasn’t much speed in them! Through the second and third checkpoints fine though we were quite spread out and I was noticing there wasn’t really anyone around me – I like running on my own (it helps to like it!) but it was a bit lonely after the recent time in the Alps running with friends. At the fourth checkpoint I made an effort to eat a fair bit – it was 51k/32 miles in and I felt hungry – plus this was (as I told them) by far the best food I’d had at an aid station – apple muffins, date energy bars, various other baked goods – all home-made and with little signs saying what they were made off; most were vegan or vegetarian – all very delicious.
Getting to halfway to Goring felt good – it was a long flat stretch along the river that seems to never end so arriving at the village hall was a relief. I’d been joined by a runner, Mark, and we got chatting – he turned out to be the uncle of my friend Rob (he, like Rob, was from Stoke so I knew they must at least know each other!). As we were leaving Goring the third woman came in – I’d passed her earlier, so I was keen to get going – having picked up my head torch (it was 7:30pm) I headed out. I returned about 2 minutes later after Mark saw me in t-shirt and shorts and said ‘not bringing anything warmer?’. So I stuck a long-sleeved top round my waist, my trusty arm warmers in my bag and headed out. Turned out it was a mild night and I never used them but it would have been daft to risk it (previous readers may remember me being pulled out of Trans Gran Canaria with ‘hypothermia’, I do get a bit cold easily).
At the 52 mile checkpoint, about 9:20pm, I asked how the first woman, Jess Gray, was going – they said she was storming it and well under the record pace, I was delighted because that record really did need smashing and she seemed like a good person to do it. Plus she was over an hour ahead of me so I had no chance of catching her. So I set off trying to maintain an ok pace – bit of walking up the hills – and keeping myself entertained in the dark, with the rabbits occasionally scaring the life out of me, oh and the moths dive-bombing for my forehead. I had a friend texting me encouragement who suggested I think of him singing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ at me so had that ear-worm for a bit, which was apt as my flatmate had also reminded me to run like a tiger at night (it’s that or a ballerina and anyone who’s spent any time around me knows I’m no ballerina!). At 62 miles/100km I felt good – weirdly good. 11 hours for a hilly 100km seemed unreal (my pb – from a few years ago – is 10:26 for a flat 100km). Guess some of the summer running is paying off. I bounded passed a couple of men who asked how I was and I responded with ‘feeling great – just waiting for the wheels to come off…’.
So an hour later, with quite sore quads, I was dry-heaving by the side of the trail wishing I could be sick. I’d taken a couple (ahem) of pro-plus tablets to keep me awake and had a fair amount of caffeinated drinks along the way… the nauseous feeling was overwhelming. In ten minutes I went from feeling on top of the world, thinking about a sub-15hour finish, to walking and trying to keep water down. Bugger. At 2:25am the third woman (who is lovely and asked how I was) overtook me as I was walking and that gave me a bit of a kick to get going again – sickness aside. The last 20 miles were pretty tough – the rain was spitting and the last few miles of the Ridgeway are probably the worst underfoot conditions with these annoying troughs you can’t really run in and bits of wet slippy chalk. Just what you don’t want after 80 miles on your feet! I was looking out for the sign that would direct me off the Ridgeway National Trail to Avebury village – I’ve done this twice before, you’d think it’d be easy, but it’s always been light when I’ve got to the last checkpoint at Barbury Castle so this was a bit odd. I spotted what I thought was a sign off, followed it, went back a bit, and generally faffed around until I just went for it and headed down to lights in the distance – and there I got to a farm which I remembered someone said years ago you got to if you came off the Ridgeway too early… fab. I wasn’t wearing my Garmin (I know, shock! I’d decided to run to feel and not stress about speed) but I could really have done with knowing if I was at mile 86 or 87/88 by now! So I went back, up to the Ridgeway, saw a light of a head torch in the distance and decided to go a little further along – where I found a big sign and knew I was nearly there. Unless you’ve run a small ultra with only 125 people (and in fact only 10 people had finished before me) it’s hard to describe the odd feeling of stopping outside a small village hall in the middle of the night with a couple of people clapping to what is one of your best executed long runs (miles 65+ were bad but could have been worse). I was swept into the hall to be presented with my Bronze British Athletics medal for third woman and given a super cup of tea. I still felt horribly sick but the elation of finishing and nearly a 3 hour pb (16:51) meant I was smiling through it. A few others finished and Alan came through – getting a pb too so a good day all round. We shared some trail stories, the camaraderie of people who’ve been through quite an ordeal, as we awaited a lift to Swindon train station and the first train to London at 8:26am.
The standard of runner turning up for this event has improved massively over the past few years – in 2010 I’d have been in the top 3 (overall – with first woman far behind) with a time under 17 hours and in 2011 the top 5. Possibly more popular now as it’s now the UK Ultra trail championships, though conversely many trail runners tend to be away this last weekend in August in Chamonix or elsewhere in the Alps for UTMB etc. Very well done to Dan Lawson for breaking the old record and winning in 12:07 (yep an ave of 8.5 min miling for 86 miles) and Jess Lawson who knocked two and a half hours off the women’s record!
I’d thought about booking a hotel near Avebury but could only think about getting home, showering and into my own bed – which I did for two hours before the Notting Hill Carnival noise became unbearable and I got up (living at the top of Notting Hill is great for 363 days a year). I think (a day on) I’ve just about re-hydrated and am eating ok; the one thing I’d do differently was hold back on the caffeine – I wasn’t that sleepy and don’t think I needed it.
Many thanks to Race Director Tim Mitchell, the Trail Running Association and all the volunteer helpers on the course – the checkpoint staff, the medical staff I didn’t need to visit and the results compilers who were updating as we went along – so friends could follow – plus the chap who made me a cuppa and a bacon bap at the finish!