The Ridgeway Challenge is an 85 mile non stop trail run, which follows the Ridgeway National Trail from Ivinghoe Beacon to Avebury. The event is now in its 9th year and competitors can start at either 10am or 12noon on the Saturday before attempting to cover the distance by 2pm on the Sunday. The Ridgeway event was also hosting the UK Ultra Distance Trail Running Championship again this year and I was struck by the perception of how professional people looked (based solely on their kit attire and packs) with the Salomon S-Lab packs looking like a clear favourite this year.
Despite arriving about an hour before the race courtesy of a lift by my support crew and fellow Reading Jogger Adrian, I’d already wasted half of that time chatting with a few familiar faces (quick hello to Ian Berry, Sandra Bowers, Natasha Doyle and Sam Kilpatrick) and spent the other half rushing around getting my bits and pieces together which is unusual for me as I’m the one who’s usually all ready and hanging around on the start line.
15 minutes before the start of the Ridgeway Challenge run and it had absolutely hammered down with rain for 5 minutes with the promise of much more rain to follow. I was searching through my bags to discover I had forgotten my Garmin so the precise race plan I was going to follow may be out the window and I was starting to feel like I need to use the portaloo.
With 10 minutes to go before the race, I decided to use the portaloo and then make a quick dash from the car park to the race start at the Ivinghoe Beacon summit. No sooner do I arrive than the Race Director Anthony blows the whistle and we start off down the hill (which were a little slick and slippery due to the earlier rain on hard ground) towards Tring.
This is the second time I’ve run the Ridgeway and I was aiming to improve upon last years result of 20hrs 25mins by taking on board a few “lessons learned” from the previous year as follows:
- More even pacing throughout the race as my pace dropped a lot last year (essentially ran more the first half and walked more the second half)
- Quick checkpoint stops particularly at Goring where I faffed around for a good half an hour.
- Don’t change shoes! I had a nasty heel blister last year, which came on after I changed my shoes (sock changes were allowed though).
- Try and run a bit of the night leg (I usually settle into a power walk and don’t even attempt to run).
For the longer Ultra’s I do like to have a race plan which helps me break down a longer event into manageable segments. Unfortunately as I had left my Garmin at home I would just try and pace it on instinct. I did have my mobile and could keep checking progress according to the plan at each Checkpoint.
Start to Checkpoint 1 (10.5 miles)
Planned Arrival Time (13.50 – 14.00)
2011 Arrival Time (13.36)
2012 Arrival Time (13.44)
The first part of the run was mainly downhill and the plan was to get there between 13.50 and 14.00. I started near the back and chatted a bit with several people including (quick name checks to Peter Johnson and Peter Chandler) and took it steady, power walking the odd hills earlier on. I was travelling light and was just wearing a race vest with a few essential pieces of kit underneath my rain jacket and did feel a little warm to start with but I could see the dark clouds ahead and knew the jacket would be required at some stage.
I spoke to a couple of guys Richard and Mark who were doing there first ever Ultra and conveniently tried to tap them up for an article in the next Issue of Ultra Tales (plug). It sounded like they had a decent plan to take it steady and despite threatening to follow me after I admitted I had done the race before, both did their own thing, stuck together and finished in sub 24 hours.
I eventually arrived at Checkpoint 1 a few minutes ahead of schedule but slower than last years time which was as per plan. I met my crew member Adrian along with a couple of other supporters from the running club (Nicky and Dave), was told to slow down a bit (obviously this was relative to me as the ultimate winner Rob Houghton finished about 5 1/2 hours ahead of me). Adrian handed me a couple of drinks and some snacks and I was off again.
Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2 (6.3 miles)
Planned Arrival Time (15.04 – 15.20)
2011 Arrival Time (14.36)
2012 Arrival Time (14.58)
The second checkpoint was fairly short (only 6.3 miles) and took us through Wendover where Ian Berry was taking photos and had spotted Sir Jackie Stewart walking his dog and he kindly agreed to a picture (see picture below courtesy of Ian).
The rest of the leg led us past Coombe Hill. It had started to rain now but I was feeling pretty warm so decided to remove the sleeves from my rain jacket, which kept my body drier but allowed me to cool down a bit. I think it was around here that I spotted Ian Berry for the last time (before Sandra got miles ahead of me) again taking a few of photos and I pulled a rubbish mobot impression (see picture below courtesy of Ian).
Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3
Planned Arrival Time (16.41 – 17.05)
2011 Arrival Time (16.15)
2012 Arrival Time (16.34)
I caught up with a couple of runners and we had a brief map check just after the checkpoint where the route was not immediately obvious and a few runners were milling about for a few moments before someone took the initiative and headed off.
For the purpose of the next time I run the Ridgeway, head up the slope to the gate after the checkpoint, then head left and then bear right down the hill, which follows the Ridgeway path.
I can’t recall much else of this leg to be honest. I guess it was up and down and wet from the on and off rain. I think it may have been here that we had a some serious thunder and lightning. The thunder I recall, was quite deafening at times. Conditions were not great at this point. I ran with Helen Smith for a while here and we briefly chatted but carried on at our own respective pace.
I arrived at the Checkpoint and changed my top as this was wet and grabbed some snacks and drinks from Adrian, Nicky and Dave and headed out again. Pitstops were pretty slick at the moment and I was hardly wasting any time here.
Checkpoint 3 to Checkpoint 4
Planned Arrival Time (18.12 – 18.43)
2011 Arrival Time (17.47)
2012 Arrival Time (18.01)
I’m fairly familiar with this part of the route having recce’d the bit from Watlington for several miles particularly as I wanted to refresh my memory of the left hand turn near the Swan Farm (I recall missing it on an unrelated hike previously) which takes you past the corn fields and up the hill towards the next checkpoint.
I ran with Helen a bit more and there were no navigational errors as such and I made it to the checkpoint now ahead of schedule and spent a couple of minutes here drinking a refreshing milkshake and snacking on some fruit pots as my appetite for chocolate and flapjack had diminished. After a brief stop I headed out again towards Goring and the half-way point. I had grabbed my backup hand torch here as it was likely to be dark before I got to Goring.
Checkpoint 4 to Checkpoint 5
Planned Arrival Time (20.58 – 21.41)
2011 Arrival Time (20.28)
2012 Arrival Time (20.36)
The first part of this leg covered the Grims Ditch leg which is a nice slight downhill trail section through a wood which gave you a bit of coverage from the on and off rain.
It had rained a fair amount as I recall and I was running a lot of this leg by myself until we got onto the Thames River and a tagged along with a couple of guys (John and Peter) who were following a bit of a run walk tactic.
The evening was setting in and it had started to get cooler as the sun disappeared. I was pretty pleased to tag along with the guys at this point as it was easy just to follow someone else’s lead. Peter (I think) was the one encouraging John to keep moving and I followed into behind chatting briefly with the guys. A quick thanks to the guys for acting as a little pick me up at that point as I was starting to get cold and needed some hot food at Goring and they kept me moving a little quicker at this point.
We eventually arrived at Goring and I wolfed down a jacket potato, beans and cheese and changed all my clothes except for my shorts as I had my number pinned on them. I tried to dry my feet with a towel and re-applied some sudocreme on the feet which were all ready cold, wet and shrivelled through the prolonged exposure to cold and water. I didn’t change my shoes (see last years error) and put some fresh socks on and grabbed my backpack, head torch, batteries and a spare top and headed out. I was conscious of the time and tried to be as quick as possible here (after last years faffing). I probably spent about 15 minutes here but it was time well spent as I had eaten some hot food, had dry clothes and headed out after the rain had stopped, perfect timing! I said goodbye to Nicky and Dave who were heading off home now after supporting for most of the day, thanks guys.
Checkpoint 5 to Checkpoint 6
Planned Arrival Time (22.56 – 23.47)
2011 Arrival Time (23.15)
2012 Arrival Time (22.54)
I left Goring and started jogging over the bridge overtaking one chap on the way and headed towards the Ridgeway path. It was dark and cooler now but the rain had stopped.
The first part of this route is a long gradual incline up the Ridgeway. I couldn’t see any tell tale signs of flashlights ahead and decided to put some music on as no-one appeared to be that close to me. In fact, I did think that the numbers of people around me were a lot less and had gleaned that the drop outs were totting up probably due to the weather.
I had an attack of the sleep monster mid-way through this leg but took a pro-plus tablet and an electrolyte drink with caffeine stimulant and decided to grab a coffee with sugar at each checkpoint from now on until the last one.
This checkpoint was on top of a hill and you could see the light some way off (a beacon of hope) as I got closer I could see three or four headlights ahead as I caught up with a small group of runners.
I decided to push past them a few hundred yards before the checkpoint so I could get a coffee first! As I made it to the checkpoint I was greeted by Dick Kearn who was supporting and grabbed a hot dog snack and a coffee which I wolfed down and pushed on. Adrian reported I was now around the mid-20’s position wise so was steadily creeping up the field.
Checkpoint 6 to Checkpoint 7
Planned Arrival Time (01.08 – 02.08)
2011 Arrival Time (01.46)
2012 Arrival Time (01.19)
I started out run/walking again although I recall my right hip and groin were a little sore so took some ibuprofen at this point.
Unfortunately, I had a few stomach issues during this leg resulting in a couple of unscheduled trips to the bushes within the space of an hour. I wasn’t quite feeling great on this leg and ended up losing 20 minutes of time I had made up.
This probably my worst leg and I was a little disappointed from being a couple of mins ahead of schedule to losing this time. However, I was ahead of 2011 pace.
I met Adrian again at the next checkpoint. He was going to leave me now and drive to Barbury Castle and get a few hours sleep in his car. Just as I was leaving another runner had just left and Adrian said to me he’s not looking that strong and you should be able to catch him up and I trotted out in search of him ahead.
Checkpoint 7 to Checkpoint 8
Planned Arrival Time (03.03 – 04.11)
2011 Arrival Time (04.10)
2012 Arrival Time (03.12)
I wanted to make up some time and decided to try and catch up with the guy ahead. I was still on the faster end of my plan but didn’t to risk another slow leg and having to make a last leg dash for a new PB. Therefore I decided to push on as far as I could and try and bank some time.
However, I didn’t feel like eating or drinking based on the last checkpoint so there was the danger of the downward spiral of using too much energy running and not replenishing this with food or water. However, it was never going to be a continuous fast paced run (more like an on and off jog) and so I thought I could cope. From this point in the race to the finish (4 hours later) I only drank about 600ml of water/orange squash, ate 1 pot of jelly and had 1 energy gel.
So this guy who Adrian described as a bit weary was a little way ahead and was actually running (some psychology at play here?) as I couldn’t see his head torch at first and I trotted out after him. Mentally I kept having to prompt myself to run a bit and asking myself the question, “Why are you not running?” When I had no answer I broke into a trot even if it was for a few hundred yards and then repeated the question again.
Eventually, this chap was in sight and probably running a little bit more than me, so I kept running in little spurts to keep him in the distance. I eventually managed to catch him and we exchanged a few words as I passed and trotted on ahead. However, a few minutes later he was back had overtaken me as I slowed to a walk and he got ahead.
We then began to leap frog each other a handful of times over the next hour and I suddenly thought to myself I might be in a little duel here although in reality it was probably the both of us using each other to keep going forward. It didn’t stop me from trying out a few tricks in the dark like putting in a spurt over a hill so the distance between us increased and dimming your light so you are more difficult to see ahead! In all honesty, I found these silly little tricks kept myself mentally occupied which helped keep me awake and moving. Thankfully, I eventually managed to get ahead and couldn’t see him as I got ahead to the next checkpoint.
If this nameless person hadn’t been here at this point, then I’m certain I would have been slower as trying to keep up with him was a good incentive to keep going.
I arrived at the camp fire checkpoint and had a quick coffee and a pot of jelly but didn’t feel like anything else. I decided to not sit down or go near the fire with a handful of other runners as I may have been tempted to stay. I then saw the runner I had been leap frogging earlier head into the checkpoint and headed out pretty sharpish. I may have made up a couple of places here with the quick pitstop and didn’t want to drop a position.
Checkpoint 8 to Checkpoint 9
Planned Arrival Time (05.45 – 07.04)
2011 Arrival Time (06.56)
2012 Arrival Time (05.38)
This was another good leg for me, I put on some upbeat music on the iPod and headed away from the checkpoint down a road and across the motorway bridge before a steeper climb up a hill and a left across some fields and bushes.
The grass was soaking wet and my feet were soaked through and I kept slipping into the stingy nettles a few times but I kept up with the short burst of a run, walk, short burst of a run.
I overtook a handful of people here and spoke briefly with them before moving on. I really wanted to keep my time up and was feeling pretty motivated at this point. The stomach wasn’t an issue now but I wasn’t really eating or drinking anything at all.
A lot of the second half of this leg was downhill towards Barbury castle and I kept up a reasonable pace towards the castle (a ruin in fact) before power walking the up and down bit before the checkpoint.
I saw a headlight perhaps less than half a mile behind me and didn’t want to be caught up at all as I had successfully moved up the field for the majority of the day and wanted to keep the momentum going.
Adrian was awake at this checkpoint but I didn’t stop here and just ran through as there was only a few miles to go (officially 5.1 but my Garmin had told me it was closer to 7 last year). I had made up a lot of time on the last two legs and the good news was that barring a disaster, I would be finishing well ahead of last year and at the faster (dream) end of my plan. (Again, please bear in mind this is all relative to my own level of performance/ability, there were some seriously quick people at the sharp end of the race)
Checkpoint 9 to Finish
Planned Arrival Time (07.01 – 08.25)
2011 Arrival Time (08.25)
2012 Arrival Time (06.59)
I was definitely feeling a little weary now and lacking a bit of energy but this was the final push! I drank a few mouthfuls of drink, sorted out a change of music and then trotted on.
The path goes down a hill past Barbury Castle and up another ridge before the stony path follows a few undulations up and down. I was a little conscious that someone wasn’t too far behind me and was determined to get over the first hill quickly so they wouldn’t see me and have that incentive to chase me down.
I continued my run walk until I eventually caught up with another guy ahead who was walking towards the end. We spoke briefly before I pushed on. A new PB was pretty much guaranteed now but how much of a PB did I want?
There were a few heavily rutted areas which were pretty difficult to run on so I carried on the run walk until I finally saw the right hand turn to Avebury. I cursed with relief and trotted down the stony path for a bit until I eventually saw Adrian close to the end.
With a less than half a mile to go it was about 6.52. Adrian said to me, if you trot in you can get under 19 hours here comfortably. I declined the offer thinking, I’ve got the PB, no-one is going to overtake me know and I asked myself is there much difference between 19.01, 19.00 and 18.59 finish time as I walked towards the finish…
….I pondered the question in the back of my mind for the next 5 mins until it hit me… of course there’s a bloody difference!
With apologies to Adrian for my language (F**k it I’m going for it or something to that effect) I hammered the last few hundred yards in a desperate attempt to make it under 7am.. a feat which would have been pretty comfortable if I had carried on plodding 5 minutes earlier but now was a little touch and go.
I ran past the pub towards the hall which was used as the finish, desperately trying to spot the door, dashed in, looked at the clock… 6.59, awesome! I think my first words were that’s a 1 minute to 7am as my time was recorded.
There were a number of people in the hall and I spoke to a few guys including Anthony Low who had finished in a great time of 16.53. I sat down and had a cup of tea and a bacon role and was chatting to a few people as the Race Director Antony came up and gave me the finishers medal.
I was in fact 14th overall and the first man in my age category home. Again, not quite sure how that happened again but I felt a little more satisfied that I had done a little more to earn it this year.
Adrian kindly gave me a lift home and I fell asleep in the bath before crashing out properly for a couple of hours and spent the rest of Sunday lazing around the house in a semi-comatose state. Upon checking my feet the blisters were actually fairly minimal (couple on the toes) but the feet were sore and initially were all white and shrivelled (picture enclosed) with the trench foot like symptoms but this improved over the day.
Overall, I was really pleased with the result. Generally my race reports finish on a “did ok but could do better” but here there were several elements I could take from this run. It was a good positive mental effort, despite a few gripes and niggles along the way which you are always going to encounter on a run of this length. I followed my race plan and took it steady throughout the race (9 hrs ‘ish to Goring and 10 hours ‘ish to the end is about as even as I am going to make it). I did a fair amount of night running and kept overtaking people toward the end (Adrian’s post results analysis indicate my last two legs were both around 5th quickest which was quite surprising). All of this led to a new personal best by quite some margin.
So no grumbles or complaints or could do betters, I’m pretty happy with the result.
That was Ultra number 23, so up next is Henk’s Ceasars Camp 100 to be number 24 (if I finish) and the Centurion Winter 100 will be number 25 (if I recover from no 24 and finish).
I can’t really afford to rest on my laurels as I’ve got two big events left this year to complete and I really need to do some longer runs in preparation for these. So I will have a light week next week before getting back into the usual routine the week after.
Hope you’ve enjoyed the Ridgeway blog. I’ll edit a few video clips and pictures together and post these later. (Thanks to Ian Berry again for taking most of the pictures I’ve used here).