Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Marlborough Downs Challenge

This weekend I ran the Marlborough Downs Challenge. I'd made it clear I wanted to run it in under six hours, which would have been a significant improvement in pace for me. For anyone wanting to avoid the rest of this post and just find out how I did I managed 6 hours 40 minutes, had a bit of a nightmare, but pulled through. If you want to hear more then read on:

Simon & I had travelled up the night before and camped just outside Marlborough, reasoning that it was just a bit too far to get up there on the morning of the race. The forecast earlier in the week had shown heavy rain; thankfully by the weekend this had been downgraded to strong winds and heavy showers. Small mercies, eh?  Well it certainly rained on Friday night, kept me awake in fact, but soon enough it was morning and the sky was clearing as we ate breakfast and wandered across town. 

The race registration was in the leisure centre and the start was to be in the grounds of Marlborough college, a private school of some repute don't you know, situated just across the road. While hanging around at registration I was surprised by a tap on the shoulder from Martin, another short-listed runner from the Trail Team weekend up in the Lakes. Turns out this was his local patch. Thinking I could follow him round I asked what time he was aiming for - "about 4:15" - err ... okaay ... well good luck with that! Having picked up our numbers we headed over to the start line. 

Entering the grounds of the college, about to get started

Before long we were off. After a steep start and a good few bottle necks we were in the open with room to move as we headed over farmland in beautiful warm sunshine. Trying to keep a reasonable pace I nipped past a few people, feeling good and enjoying being on the go. Soon we passed the first checkpoint and entered a beautiful wood filled with Bluebells. Not long after that we got our first taste of just how muddy our day was likely to be. The muddy conditions combined with a good long hill slowed us all down; the heavy clay sucked at my ankles and soon drained the energy from my legs. 

A sunny start

Running through the bluebell woods

So it was good to break free of the mud and get up on the downs. The views were incredible but so was the wind which buffeted and generally caused a nuisance for the next few miles. Soon we joined the Wansdyke, a series of medieval defensive earthworks that run for many miles and make an indelible impression on the land. The ground was undulating but thankfully dry and firm underfoot. 

View from the downs

A sky indicative of things to come

On the Wansdyke Way
Eventually we dropped down through fields and farm tracks towards the canal that would take us into DevizesIt was about now that I realised things were not going quite to plan. I'd been exchanging places for a some miles with a few runners, including one woman who had completed the course six times and seemed to be aiming for a similar time to me. This was great as I could forget about navigation for a bit and just settle into a rhythm; unfortunately as we reached the canal I found I was struggling to hold onto the pace.  Reluctantly I dropped back. As the canal wore on I felt more and more tired; this was meant to be a nice easy section of unchallenging, flat terrain but my legs just felt weak, like jelly. I was prepared to feel crap sooner or later but I wasn't even half way round - this was a real worry. Of course the worse I felt the more negative thoughts appeared in my head and, by the time I left the canal, I felt awful.

The canal

At this point Simon came past. To be honest I was surprised he'd caught me up so quickly and this only added to the downer I was in. Simon hung about for a bit as I told him how I was feeling but it was obvious I wasn't going to keep up with him and soon he was off ahead. Not long after this was one of the biggest climbs of the race. Now normally I march up hills without too much trouble but I could barely walk up this one.  I just couldn't work out what was wrong. Getting to the top of the hill my calfs promptly cramped up and this led me to think about salt intake. I necked a tablet and waddled on. Shortly I was caught by another runner - Nigel it turned out, from Bolton - suffering similar trouble to me. We chatted and matched each other's pace and this helped me take my mind off the problems I was having. Before long I started to perk up a bit and, no longer trying to keep to a particular pace, I found myself enjoying the day again. 

Heading up Cherhill in worsening weather

The weather soon took a turn for the worse. Heavy rain came from nowhere; it looked set in, but the wind was strong enough that within minutes the shower had passed and the sun was breaking through again. This pattern of sun and showers reigned throughout the rest of the day, with the rain generally returning just after I decided to take my waterproof off! We were soon joined by a few more runners (approaching from the rear!) and between us managed some of the more difficult route finding decisions of the day, enduring more muddy trails before finding ourselves at the top of Cherhill overlooking the chalk white horse. 

Climbing up Cherhill. Nigel, from Bolton, on the left
The white horse as the rain returned

At this point I was feeling a little better and soon dragged myself to the front of our little group to take my turn to lead us on. After a couple of miles we hit the A4, the route following the road for a mile or so. Someone else took the lead and we were moving well but I quickly realised I was being dragged into someone else's race at a pace I couldn't sustain. I deliberately stepped aside and let those faster runners go on, lest I find myself in trouble again. At the rear of the group I met my mate from Bolton again and we soldiered on, soon arriving at Avebury.

Stones at Avebury

From here a long gradual hill led up to the Ridgeway and before long to the final checkpoint. The last three miles wound down through a race course and would have been easy going but for the preceding thirty. Still it was all in the bag and I was happy enough. At last the finish line came and we were rewarded with a lovely mug from a local pottery - better than a T shirt I reckon! We were also entitled to a hot meal a drink and a shower. Its a shame we had to run so far to make mundane things like a hot shower seem so good. Refreshed, and only smarting slightly at Simon beating me by half an hour we headed back to the camp site via a brief but enlightening tour of the pubs of Marlborough.

My prize!

On reflection this was a great day. Things had not gone as expected but the course was challenging and led us through some beautiful countryside. The navigation had been easy enough - better than expected in fact. I had spent some time in good company, shared stories and suffered together with people I met along the way. And I had been reminded of another lesson for running ultras; that you will feel bad but if you keep pushing on then sooner or later it will pass. 

Thanks to the organisers, the marshals and all those other souls who helped to make this a great day out. Maybe I'll see you next year for another shot at that sub 6 hour finish!


  1. Great write-up. Sounds exactly like my day: all good to the end of the canal and then that hill knocked me out until Avebury. It was warmer than it seemed along the towpath and battling the mud and wind in the first half was harder work than mile times suggested.

  2. I read your report with interest, I also did this race but unfortunately got lost If you remember the route directions it was at the T.junction of the concrete road and head up the left hand field to the barn to the check point, unfortunately I went to the wrong barn and tried to ring the number to tell them I was lost and it took 20mins to finally get an answer, which resulted in me losing precious time and in the end was disqualified once I got to Avebury after running out of time

    Totally gutted, as in 37 marathons this was my first DNF or DQ and I cried all the way from Avebury. It was a totally gorgeous run, even considering the bizarre weather and so upset I got lost and upset that no one answered the phone to help me

  3. Hi Jo, so sorry to hear your race didn't go so well. I remember exactly the point you mean; there were three or four of us there and some discussions ensued - one guy who knew the area was heading off right but that seemed wrong to me...luckily for once I was right and within a few yards the correct barn was in sight. Navigation is something I'm new too as well, though I quite like the added challenge. Remember though DNF = "Did Nothing Fatal". Always another time. cheers, Andy.

  4. Thanks for the write-up. I've run this one a few times and it's one of my favourites. Couldn't do it this year thanks to a sprain two days beforehand but it's nice to experience it through someone else's eyes instead.

  5. Cheers Ed, hope you are back up and running soon, so to speak

  6. Great write up bud and looks like a stunning 'lush' route! :)

  7. Twas a good one Ross. Maybe not as warm as your weekend mind!