Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Vasque series race 1 - Wye Ultra 30mi. Sun 01/03/2009

Wye Ultra
Ooh, another new event to try and a new part of the country to explore. I had been looking forward to this for weeks. The forecast wasn’t looking too bad and I was going to stop over on Saturday and Sunday for a ‘relaxing’ long weekend.

After my arrival on Saturday pm to a surprisingly dry Ross-on-Wye, I checked out the deserted rowing club – only 2 minutes’ walk from my B&B. There’d be no problems getting to the start. A long chat with the landlady introduced me to the town’s facilities. I wandered around at dusk to marvel at the ancient history and interesting shops in Ross before finding my way to a convenient local pub within spitting distance by the river, where the fuelling and hydration commenced for the next day and where I reserved my post-race Sunday roast-beef dinner.

Sunday dawned dry. The forecast rain had not materialised and the cloud was already thinning to reveal the warming sun. Upon arrival I began to hear about the poor organisers’ dilemma: the planned 15-mile out-and-back was in ruins due to a bridge closure. They had only found this out the day before. The only solution was to bring the turnaround point back to 7.5 miles and run the shorter out-and-back twice. This was the only way they could accommodate all the runners, including the relay runners, safely. Oh well, I’d never done a double out-and-back before. It would be Novelty Number 1.

At registration we were issued with timing chips, which we strapped around our ankle. Novelty Number 2: to have our race times timed to the second. As we milled around among a few rowers and their very long boats, waiting for the 9am start, it was great to catch up with so many running buddies, in some cases after quite a long gap.

9am soon approached and we were ushered onto the grass outside the gate. The day looked to be warm so I was already in T-shirt and shorts and feeling quite comfortable for it. The organisers had advised us that we needed to be self-sufficient. Personal needs drop-bags were deposited for the aid station and I had my two hand-held bottles in hand ready for the off. They would last me for the entire duration without needing a top-up.

We were instructed to look out for the arrows and orange chalk markings along the trail, the air horn blasted and we were off down the riverside path, which soon went left away from the river, up a little blip and onto a wooded trail. This soon brought us onto the 2.5-mile flat-ish road section, which provided easy running on fresh legs. The leaders were soon vanishing into the distance. (Apparently the road section was unavoidable, since the river path alternative was in very poor condition in places.)

The end of the road section brought us to the base of ‘The Hill’ and the enthusiastic vocal support of two delightful ladies at the entrance to the field. Ahh, off-road again and an excuse to walk. The climb probably took all of two minutes before the climb over the precipitous stile at the top and the right turn onto the shaded, undulating woodland trail. The occasional orange arrows and highlighting of trip hazards like roots and rocks were very thoughtful. I wasn’t used to such mollycoddling – Novelty Number 3.

The trail eventually brought us onto a concrete track, which descended to a road. The group in front had disappeared and there were no markings to tell us where to go. We soon realised we should have turned left up another track. (I later heard that a local miscreant had removed the arrow that should have shown us the way. The organisers were replacing it upon my return.)

After another delightful, leaf-strewn, undulating woodland trail, we descended to the road and the descent to the aid station, where we were directed over the timing mat. With no aid being required yet, I was straight off along the gravel path, left across the road bridge and left down to the riverbank for another undulating, wooded trail run to the 7.5-mile turnaround point around “Crashie’s Cone”. Up to now I had been running on and off with Julie, Mark, Jason, Matt, David and the bloke with the spotty shirt. A mile or so from the turnaround, the leaders came back in the other direction, which required the occasional nimble deviation up the bank to give them free passage (their need was greater than mine). Novelty Number 4: to see the elites in full flight on an ultra run.

Upon my return through the aid station I grabbed a quick Marmite and cucumber sandwich from my drop bag to keep me going and power me back up the hill to the wooded trail. Each passage through the aid station required the crossing of the timing mat, no doubt to ensure that everyone passed through four times within expected time periods to ensure no cheating (as if anyone would!). Curiously, the water refill table was adjacent to the mat, so anyone getting a refill was activating the timing equipment continuously, causing it to wail wildly. I returned to the club turnaround point to complete the first half in 2:14, which works out at 6.72mph. What? Surely not. I'm not that fast. Was it really 15 miles?

Unsurprisingly, the second half would be much slower as the inevitable slowdown occurred. The jog was becoming a plod and any uphill was welcomed as an excuse for a brief walking break. It was time to settle back into the 'just enjoy it and take each minute as it comes' mode. The cheerleaders at the bottom of the hill were still cheering wildly. The sun was shining warmly and life felt good. As I neared the top of the hill the lead runners began to pass me on their final return leg. I paused at the top to watch them race down the hill. I took more pictures on the second half (any excuse for a few seconds’ rest, which makes all the difference in the survival stakes).

On my final return leg and the final approach to the top of 'The Hill', I could hear the cheerleaders letting rip with a Gary Glitter number: “Come-on come on, Come-on come on”. I got the same treatment when I reached the bottom. I took their picture. They deserve an accolade for the best encouragement for all the runners, without exception.

The final road section was a trudge (I hate flat terrain). The plod was reduced to a shuffle but it was the best I could muster. I was getting overtaken but who cares? I'm so used to it. As I headed towards the final 'blip' descent to the river path, I got overtaken for the umpteeth time by spotty shirt bloke. He was obviously faster than I was but he was pausing at the aid station, so we kept overtaking each other. I raced past him again on the all-too-brief downhill as I let gravity power me down the blip, but once onto the flat I slowed to the inevitable shuffle again, at which point I was re-overtaken for the final time. I checked my watch and it began to dawn on me that I might beat 5 hours (I had assumed sub 6). I gave it all I had and increased my speed to a plod to finish in 4:54, giving an overall speed of 6.12mph. Quite unbelievable for me. Either the course was short or the trail was MUCH more gentle than I'm used to. The second half took 2:40, speed 5.63mph.

We were greeted at the finish with a goody bag, which contained a couple of flyers, a small bottle of spring water, a technical T-shirt (very useful), a runner’s finisher’s medallion and – wait for it – a Frisbee. The last item must be the organisers' way of encouraging us to keep fit between races with a spot of cross training and cardiovascular fitness optimisation.

Facilities at the finish can best be described as frugal. The absence of any laid-on pots of tea or food at the finish meant that everyone embarked on a premature journey home (probably thirsty and hungry). The usual social gathering did not happen. The prize presentation at 4:30pm was a wash-out. Only two runners – me and second place finisher Matthew Ray – were there. As a result I won a spot prize (by default obviously). Moral: if you want a spot prize, stay for the presentation :-)

I have left with fond memories of the weekend. The format was a novelty and it allowed a rare glimpse of an ultra run that mid to back-of-the-pack runners would not normally get to see. It formed a nice gentle introduction to the 2009 Vasque series. It was the first running of this event and I have no doubt that there will be some tweaks to make it even better for next year.

1 down, 11 to go......


  1. hi nick, just came across your blog...enjoyed your report from the wye. i'm only going back if those marshalls/cheerleaders are there next year ;)
    look forward reading about your futur adventures!

  2. Thanks Kate. More uploads just completed.