It threatened to be another glorious weekend on sunshine and dryness though the weather reports had been mixed all week. Tuesday said it was going to be great, Wednesday said it will be shit, Thursday said great again and Friday morning when the race was about to start said, well maybe..
It's a pain in the arse looking at weather reports for long races. At least if you are running the London Marathon you can just type "Deptford" into the BBC weather page and see what you have in store for the 3ish hours you are going to be running. I spent all week looking at Tring, Streatley, Wantage, Watlington, Swindon to try and see what the conditions were going to be like.
The Ridgeway path is mainly off-road and stretches from Ivanhoe Beacon near Tring in the east all the way to Swindon out west. It is an 85 mile chalk ridge formed when Europe collided with Africa 30 million years ago. Bloody foreigners, distorting our landscape. Wait till the Daily Mail hear of this. It has been used for at least 5000 years as a cross country path because it's elevation make it drier and easier to defend against attack. Apparently it is the oldest road in Britain.
The Challenge this weekend was to complete the Ridgeway trail (well most of it) in 3 days, which equates to around a marathon each day. There are a fair few hills, the occasional mud bath and slippy chalky descents that would make this more of a challenge. It is another fantastic event put on by XNRG. I did this last year and the most lasting memories despite rain and mud was the very friendly atmosphere created by the organisers and all the runners/walkers who took part.
However for me it was going to be a different challenge as I was going to be doing this with my girlfriend Gemma who had not done such a thing before. Will she make it to the end with a smile on her face? Will she get pushed off down a chalk slope? Who knows? It was going to be interesting to find out.
Day 1 - Ivanhoe Beacon to Watlington
Everyone starts late today to give everyone the chance to get to the start in good time. The walkers set off at 10, runners at 11 and fast runners at 12. I started with Gemma and most of the field at 11 thinking that would be plenty of time to get the run done before the sun sets at 4ish. A large gazebo was pitched up on another hill near the start before we all had to make our way down and then back up to Ivanhoe Beacon for the start of the run. From here you can see for miles and miles. It was fairly clear and the views during the day would be stunning if it stayed like this. Starting on a steep downhill always make you think you are going to fall and be trampled on by a herd of ultra running elephants.
The first miles are mainly open grasslands before ducking into the woods. The trees and paths this time of year are stunning, everything is orange and gold and the leaves on the floor makes it feel like you are running along a carpet. It was perfect weather for running, around 10 degrees and sunny. Now is the time where people catch up with other runners that they have not seen in a while. "Oh I remember you from such and such race in August", "Ahhh, yes, the one where we all got lost and ended up having to ask that farmer in a tractor where to go and he wouldn't tell us cos he thought we were here to set badgers loose on his cows?"
Anyway, whilst having one such conversation one of us took a wrong turn which resulted in about 50 of us getting lost. Time and time again we get told not to follow blindly like a sheep but being a sheep is just so damn easy. The Ridgeway is 99% very clearly marked but there are just a couple of points where another sign would be welcome. One such point is after around 8 miles where there is a left turn on a road (very clearly marked) and then a right turn into a field (sign is IN the overgrown hedge and so invisible) and we ended up running down another road for about a mile. The nice gentle descent was lovely and I think that's why everyone ran so far without thinking that they had not seen a sign for a while. Back up the hill then.
The first checkpoint was near a church and had a great collection of sweet and savoury snacks. I am rather partial to a sausage or 5 in situations like this and dug right in. On leaving the checkpoint we saw at least 20 others who should have been way out in front coming back the other way to get to the checkpoint. They had made the same mistake we had however they had gone on much further and managed to find their way back via a 4 mile detour. Everyone was pretty much back together again.
Around half way is where I'd expect the leaders from the faster group to start overtaking but it was hard to seperate them from the faster ones from the middle group. I bumped into Paul who I'd met at the UTMB earlier in the year and chatted about Spartathlon and the like, as you do. It was only later that day I realised that he ended up in second place, having strolled along to chat to me. How nice. The course skirts around Chequers and then up onto Coombe Hill where you can see again for miles and miles.
It started to rain, annoying drizzly rain that just made everything slowly wet but was persistent. Gemma was suffering with an ankle sprain that was hard in the mud. And there was plenty of mud up ahead. The trail became harder to run on even though it flatened out a bit, we were on sections where land rovers drive and churn up the path into pools of mud.
The rain persisted and it became dark. It happens suddenly when surrounded by trees and we waited till the last minute to put the head torches on. Many had forgotten theirs or not brought them as they couldn't imagine not finishing in the daylight. The path cut through a dis-used quarry with warning signs all over telling us to keep out. The path here was straight and narrow but without being able to see the floor very well it was slow going. I got chatting to a guy who didn't have a great torch and Gemma used this as an opportunity to fly off and head to the finish a good few minutes before me. Typical. The total distance Mr Garmin recorded was 31.5 miles and everyone had done 31-34 miles. A few had managed to stick to the route perfectly and clocked about 29.5 miles, which is cheating really.
These events are designed to keep costs down and to do that venues such as school halls and leisure centres are used to sleep for the night. You bring your own sleeping bags and mats and crash out on the floor with around 100 others. However Gemma had another idea, that we should stay in nearby B&B's and sleep in a nice bed. It felt a bit like cheating as part of the challenge is to do these events with hardly any sleep as there will no doubt be a number of runners who snore like tractors and get up 4 times a night to go to the toilet. Still I didn't complain as long as she sorted it all out. I sat down and had a few coffees and a couple of cans of Boddingtons and then we were on our way. We stayed in a nice place with another runner who was only doing day 2. After a hard days running and a good nights sleep we were told that we were not allowed to pour our own coffee from the pot as it was against health and safety regulations. Someone get me the Daily Mail again. I've so much to tell them.
Day 2 - Watlington to Wantage
Our lovely B&B hosts took us to the start but we still missed it while I was in the toilet. Gemma (who waited for me this time) left a couple of minutes after everyone else at 8 (there was also a 7 and 9 start) and slowly caught up to the back end of the middle group. I recall last year I set out with the fast group and was quite near the back and worrying about getting lost. The weather had cleared from yesterday, not too much mud and no rain was forecast. Of the 3 days I think this is the best one in terms of great running. There are a few more miles of the wide muddy track and then you are into the woods again, up and down under the trees. It was still a little on the wet side but this is up there with the best running you can do in the UK. The path is challenging but all runable, could be done at high speeds if you are into that kind of thing.
This would be a joy to run in the summer and there is an opportunity to race the whole thing in one go in August. It is the same weekend as the UTMB and will no doubt involve a lot less cheese but would definitely involve a lot less getting jabbed in the face by idiots and their walking poles. I have no idea how the Romans marched up and down this when it was muddy.
For the whole of the second day you are treated to the sight of Didcot Power Station, it can be seen for miles around. The Ridgeway route decends then joins the river Thames at Goring and we are treated to some more mud that we had been missing since this morning. There was a checkpoint just before we had to cross the river and then onto the second half of the ancient path, where it gets a lot more exposed and chalkier. I was suffering a little bit with sore calves having run nearly 100 miles in the week before. Gemma was having sudden bursts of pace and for some reason can stride up hills much faster than I can.
Today felt a lot more relaxed, in part due to the earlier start which meant that none of us would be finishing in the dark. There was also the promise of a swim and sauna at the end of the day in the leisure centre we (or rather everyone else) was camped in. We finished on the path itself and then got rides to the centre we stayed at. We all bundled into the van and headed off and only 15 minutes later we were all hobbling wrecks from the sit down. I'm not sure what a sauna is supposed to do after a run, whether its good or bad to have one but I did anyway, staying in a 70 degree room for about 10 minutes before I was reminded of Badwater and craved a Big Mac again. I didn't bother with the cold shower. Not too sure what that is supposed to do either. After a race is it better for a cold bath or hot shower? I wish someone would decide. In the meantime I've heard no evidence to say that eating a big pie and chips and drinking 4 pints of local ale is bad in such a situation so that is what I did.
Day 3 - Wantage to Barbury Castle
As we walked to the start from our B&B (that allowed us to pour our own coffee, who do I report this to?) there was a mist that restricted visibility to about 20 meters. Last year on day 3 I remember the same stuff, making it much harder to pick out the signs. Fortunately it was clearer when we got up back to the path. Today was more of the same, some wide paths that were likely to be churned up and some very slippy chalk. We saw a lot more villages and houses on this part of the route which was nice, saying hello to people walking their dogs.
Gemma was really struggling with a swolen ankle but was very determined to finish. Before now she had not even done a back to back marathon before and now having run the first 31.5 miles (further than ever before) and then another marathon she was going to finish the whole thing off with another marathon. I said to her that after this we could go on one of those awful programmes where you swap partners for a week. Some fat TV addict would have a fit if they thought we'd put them through this. Imagine that? "What's that? you want me to run 82 miles in a weekend? I'll miss X-factor".
I like to feel a bit self-righteous when doing these kind of things. On another Sunday I might still be in bed with a hangover and unwilling to get out of bed until 12 and then only be capable of frying some eggs and logging onto facebook to assess the damage from the previous night. It's quite nice to think that you can explore some of the country, run 26ish miles, meet some new people and catch up with others and think about how you are going to deal with a 12000 calorie deficit later in the evening. It would not have been that much though, I had just eated 10 cocktail sausages at one of the checkpoints and there was plenty of food at the end of the day.
Gemma and I were at the back (defending the rear from enemy fire as it's known). There was another chap called James who seemed to be suffering more than Gemma was. He had hurt his toe quite badly and looked really uncomfortable. I overheard a phone call he made where he said "Yeah, just calling to take my mind off this horrible run. My toe really hurts and my Ipod is dead and everyone has run off and it's raining". He seemed a bit dejected but we ran with him a while and as soon as the Iboprufen kicked in he felt a little happier. He explained that this was the first event of this kind and that the furthest he had raced before was a half marathon on road. Pretty amazing that he would have the balls to go straight for something like this but good on him, what an event to finish off the year with.
These events are great for anyone looking to venture into multidays for the first time. You will find at least a dozen more people who are completely new to this too and a lot more who are more experienced. There is not too much navigation involved, the courses are well marked. Lots of people use this as training for the Marathon Des Sables and by carrying your kit it's ideal and Rory Coleman was there to help out and give a talk on the MDS on the saturday night. If you are doing the MDS you'll probably recieve a lot of emails saying to need to be in the sauna or oxygen chambers or all sorts of things that cost a load of money and distract you from what is the most important, the running. Those who complete an event like this will be in a very good position come next April. It sounds odd that you can train for a desert race by sliding about in the mud for 20 hours over a weekend but it's worked for the Brits for years.
There was supposed to be a lot of history to see in this leg but the mist and rain covered it. We were not really looking at this stage though. Gemma and I were going at a consistent pace but not near anyone save for passing the occasional walker and being passed by one of the faster guys. It was quite nice, it feels like the middle of nowhere at times.
It had rained for much of the day but held off a little as we approached the end. The paths got muddier until with about 2 miles to go we hit the hills towards the end. I could not remember from last time how long this was as the hills just seemed to roll on and on. There was nothing around but fields, sheep and the M4. Finally a sign pointing us off the grass and onto some tracks and then a big yellow XNRG arrow pointing towards a small car park. We were done.
The finish was less grim than last year. It was not raining and there was space to stand around and drink beer. Having beer to buy at the end of each day was a nice touch, one of many that made the weekend so great.
Gemma did fantastically and I am very proud of her though next time we are going to do it properly and sleep on the floor like everyone else. Be warned everyone, bring your ear plugs...