Monday, 18 May 2009

Vasque series race 6 - Marlborough Downs Challenge 33mi. Sat 16/05/2009

Marlborough Downs Challenge
“Another day at the office.” I wandered up to the Leisure Centre on Saturday morning to greet Simon Berry, who was putting up the sponsors’ flags. It was only a week since we had both run the Fellsman and here we were, about to do another one, all be it considerably less demanding – a warm-down if you will.

The Fellsman had left my calves complaining mildly for a few days, but more worrying was a painful and swollen left foot/heel/ankle that had begun to flare up on Monday. It peaked on Tues – Wed and made walking and descending stairs somewhat painful. It even disturbed a night's sleep. I didn’t run a step for the whole week; I cycled to work for the first time since January and was reminded how ultra-weakened legs lack power for energetic cycling of more than 30 seconds duration. The abstinence from running seemed to work because the rapid flare-up became an equally rapid flare-down through Thurs – Fri, and by the hiss of the starter’s air horn (it was flaccid or she may have been weak of finger) on Saturday at 9am I would hardly have known anything was wrong. I only got the occasional reminder when I tweaked it the wrong way on uneven terrain. I took it easy to avoid aggravation - I paused to take more photographs.

My journey down to Marlborough on Friday afternoon took me through several torrential downpours and a thunderstorm. I hoped the weather would be a bit kinder to us on Saturday. It was. Save for a few early showers and the ever-present strong wind, the day turned out pretty good. The rolling chalk downs of Wiltshire are very picturesque. In the early stages just before checkpoint 1 the footpath took us through a field of rape that was shoulder high. Just after checkpoint 1 we were into lush bluebell woods. I was pleased to note that the bluebells were the original English variety with drooping bells, not the invading Spanish variety with sticky-out bells (I hope you’re taking notes). Shortly afterwards the trail took us through dense beds of wild garlic with its white flowers in full bloom. The smell was pungent.

We were soon out of the woods and ascending onto the rolling chalk ridges, heading for Wansdyke (an impressive ancient earthwork rampart). As we ran across ridges through fields of sheep and lambs, wide-open colourful vistas of distant fields of rape opened up before us. It was a patchwork quilt of yellow rape, light green pastures and white chalk.

The excellent organisation of the organisers provided us with direction arrows whenever they were needed – green arrow on yellow background with, where applicable, an “LS” to signify the ‘Last Sign’ for a while. Such attention to detail was well appreciated. The frequent checkpoints with friendly staff provided all the liquid refreshment we required, while some of them provided simple snacks like biscuits and Jaffa Cakes.

At the 22-mile point, we climbed the hill to the Cherhill Monument with the white horse carved in the chalk hillside to the left. I liked the part of the route description that instructed us to bear right on 102 degrees above the back end of the horse. It’s quaint. Later on, the route took us through some truly ancient English countryside. In addition to Wansdyke, we passed sarsen stones in a field before Avebury, while in Avebury we passed across Avebury Circle – a very large circle of ancient standing stones.

I plodded my way up to the last checkpoint (CP8), taking in the views along the way, and then it was 3.6 miles of mostly downhill to the finish with around half an hour left to squeeze a PB. Could I? If I didn’t try my best I may regret it. I set off without delay and ran every step of those 3.6 miles (picking off a few people on the way – most unusual for me in the closing stages of a run; the opposite usually applies) to finish in 5hrs 47mins. It was a PB by the narrowest of margins; last year it was 5:48 and I hadn’t run the Fellsman the weekend before. The last section proved to be my fastest by a considerable margin with a speed of 6.75mph, no doubt helped by a slower first three quarters combined with the downhill finish.

These ultras are friendly and addictive affairs. There are always new friends to be made. There were a few ultra first-timers who did pretty well for themselves. One of them was Stuart, who I came across on the Runner’s World forum. We ran together for a while until his better speed and stamina pulled him away to a several minute advantage at the finish – another convert to trail ultra running.

The course record was smashed this year by Matt Giles and Allen Smalls, who finished joint first in 3:54. Even the third placed finisher, Andy Davies, still broke the previous course record with his time of 4:06. Well done to all of them. The first female finisher was Susan Sleath in a time of 4:54.

After two hours of chatting and eating (that pasta was excellent, shame there wasn’t more), the hall had emptied and it was time to set off on the long journey home. I was soon caught on the edge of a squall line that seemed to chase me for 3 hours all the way home to Stockport. I just got the car away and unloaded in time. We were very lucky for the event. It could have been so much worse. All my pictures are here.

Six down, six to go. Halfway through already?!

There is a big gap until the next Vasque series event – Osmotherley Phoenix 33mi. on 4th July – but I shall not be resting until then. I have the small matter of the Western States Endurance Run the week before, and I shall certainly be finding a few other events to do to keep me on the boil until Western States. Watch this space.....


  1. hey Nick. You certainly have the nack when it comes to writing. A great piece my friend which captures the event very nicely indeed! My effort was a little less descriptive, probably because my concentration was wholely on finishing in one piece. Some great pictures too. Would you mind if I inserted a link to your photo of 'the lost shoe' into my blog page? I will credit your photo! my blog spot is here -

  2. Hi Stuart. You're quick off the mark! I've just bookmarked your blog too. You're welcome to link the picture.

  3. well done again nick. commendable effort and result :)