A Saturday morning in mid-November. It’s barely above freezing. Rain has been falling persistently for the last few days. The course is a hilly 10 mile loop through Wendover Woods, just outside Aylesbury. We run this loop 5 times, with a 15 hour cut off.
This is a 50 mile ultra-marathon, put on by the fantastic Centurion Running crew, who lay on the best organised events I’ve ever seen. But this is not ordinary ultra, it’s hilly, muddy and the hills are enough to reduce you to a blubbering wreck by loop 4. As we’re in UK winter, a large chunk of the race for us mere mortals is run in the dark, making the ascents, descents, and rooty wooded paths even more treacherous. This is not a race for the faint hearted.
But’s it’s a hell of fun race. So here’s a race report. It’s a long one, maybe as long as the race. I think I need to work on my editing skills.
In the lead up to this, I’d run a few 50s and a couple of 100s so far this year, but nothing with the amount of climbing and descending that’s involved here (somewhere around 3300 meters in 50 miles), not mountainous by any means, but more than I’ve done before. So I whilst I was comfortable with the distance, I was more than little wary about how brutal these hills could be. A couple of months out from the race, and having spoken to some WW50 veterans whilst volunteering at NDW100, I realised that I’d better get my arse in gear and do some proper hill training.
My usual training routes are either along the river Trent (flat) and Beeston Canal (flat) or around Sherwood Forest (mainly flat) so I was severely lacking some hills, and struggled to find a decent off-road hill, without driving all the way out the Peak District. So I made do with a mundane but steepish street that run from one North Nottingham suburb up to another. It’s about half a mile from top to bottom, with about 200 feet of climbing, so isn’t as big as I’d like, but that was remedied by doing a 10x repeat session. Far from the most exciting training session, but I’d mitigate the repetition by listening to podcasts about people doing really really very hard things (Moab 240, Barkley etc) to put a mere 50 miler through some UK woods in perspective. Adding this into the training mix, and being fairly consistent with 40-50 miles per week was enough to get me ready for this race. Everyone’s different, some will do far more miles than this, some will do less, but this seems to work for me.
I had no real expectations of how long WW50 was going to take me, I expected at least a couple of hours longer than a ‘normal’ 50 that I’ve done such as SDW, Ox50, Green Man (not a 50 I know, but it’s the same ballpark). So I went in to the race with an ‘A’ goal of under 12 hours, ‘B’ goal of under 13, but also I’d have been happy enough with a 14:59:59 finish.
Leading up to the race, pretty much the whole of the the UK had been under torrential rain for a week, so there were 2 concerns here. Number 1 was how slippy the course would be, actually the woods drain well, so the vast majority of the course was mud free as the day of the race was dry. The parking field however, was a real concern for runners and organisers, with fears of people having to be towed out, but again on the day it turned out fine, but it did add a little to the pre-race nerves
Night before: I stayed at at the Aylesbury Travelodge, which was effectively free as I used a voucher I’d been given as compensation for the night after SDW50 when the fire alarm in the Worthing Travelodge had gone off several times throughout the night). Thankfully there were no alarm related issues this time. This was around 15 mins drive from the race, which was fine, I was very conscious of not having to drive too far after the race. Don’t take any risks with driving too far after a race, this can (and has in the not too distant past in the UK) end in disaster.
Race morning: Knowing the parking field may be tricky, I planned to get there early before too many other cars had been through it, so I arrived as registration opened at 7am. Registration was fine (other than me forgetting to put my buff in my pack). A word of warning: Centurion are (rightly) very hot on checking you have the mandatory kit, this is for the safety of runners, and while you may not think you need your emergency base layer or space blanket, there are good reasons for including these on the kit list and enforcing this, as we’ll see later…
With time to kill before race start, I sat in the car eating the most amazing porridge from the food/coffee van. A word on this van: the 2 ladies working in the van not only serve extremely tasty porridge and other snack and drinks, but were as cheery (maybe even more so) at 10pm as they were at 7am. Legends. The pumpkin porridge was a magical concoction of spices, syrups and pecan nuts.
At the start/finish area there’s a marquee including a pop up store in case of any last minute kit requirements, and space to leave your drop bag. As it’s a looped course you can access your bag every 10 miles, and you can also leave more stuff in your car in case you need it, as the parking area is right next to the marquee. My drop bag included the usual stuff, spare clothing, cold weather kit, spare head torch and a variety of gels, flapjacks, bags of Tailwind and Active Root, as well as the holy grail of ultra racing nutrition, Snickers.
Race briefing from RD James was brief and to the point. Main themes were look after each other, keep your mandatory kit on you at all times, don’t faff about excessively at checkpoints, and be careful of the cold.
And then it began. We were led down to the start, a few hundred meters from the marquee, and off we went, on the dot of 09:30.
I was glad to get moving, mainly because it was fucking freezing, and my feet were already numb.
So, the loop… It’s a twisty turny thing, with 10 miles of trails squeezed into an area of forest just a couple of miles across. But it’s so well marked, it’s easy to find your way round
Despite the horror stories I’d heard before, I was very surprised how runnable much of the loop is. The majority is nice gentle trail, with a short sharp hill thrown in every mile or 2, and a couple of longer climbs. Don’t be put off by the hills though, they’re tough but none of them last long, and virtually all are followed by a nice runnable downhill section.
The race starts by passing the Wendover Woods visitor centre and the famous Gruffalo, with a gentle down hill, then a short up into the woods proper. The first few miles were a little congested, which is to be expected, but it never felt overcrowded. By the time we reached the first ‘landmark’ descent, it had thinned out.
A note on the climbs/descents: Each major hill is named, this helps you to form the loop in your mind and also makes it easier to describe where you are in case of any problems. The first notable one is Powerline Descent, a steep but short slippy, slidey drop out of the woods and into an open field, under a powerline. This seemed more treacherous on the first loop, on subsequent loops you get to know how to take the best line down and the safest footing.
After Powerline, you quickly get in sight of Hale Lane aid station, but then turn away from it and head up another hill (Hell’s Road I think this one is called) as it’s not time to visit the checkpoint yet, there’s a couple of miles to go. Up Hell’s Road, (pretty slippy at the top) and then down again, and then comes another up, the most significant so far, the Go Ape climb. At the top of this, you arrive with your chest about to burst, amongst families enjoying a day out at the Go Ape attraction who seem confused by these nutters running around the woods.
And then again it’s down, a nice long downhill, then through a section where the tree roots seem to be actively trying to grab your ankles and pull you down, and then down again to Hale Lane.
The checkpoint is at approx 5.5 miles, and as with all ultra checkpoints, is a joy to arrive at. Centurion checkpoints are always very well stocked, and I was especially happy to grab a fistful of cheese and marmite sandwiches. Volunteers are always happy to help and will offer to refill bottles and tell you what food’s on offer. They are the absolute lifeblood of these events, and I take my hat off to them for standing out in the cold for so long to help us.
Cheesy marmitey sandwiches in hand, I left the checkpoint for a long but gradual ascent (which seemed to get longer and less gradual on each subsequent loop). At the top you then get to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. From the name of this, I’d expected it to be a lung-busting grind of a climb, but it’s actually a very runnable gentle down, and was my fastest mile of the day.
Then, the Snake, another climb, followed by the Hill Fort loop, and a another lovely long runnable section. Just as you get lulled into a false sense of security “What hills, it’s not that bad after all” at around 9 miles in, comes Gnarking Around. The most (in)famous climb of the loop. It’s not that high, 40 meters maybe, but it’s steep as a motherfucker, and was a more than a bit slippy. It’s steep enough to make you grab on to some of the trees and roots on the way up, but after a few minute of “what the fuck” you’re up and over the top, then another nice downhill before you get to the last climb “Railing in the Years.” Not as steep as Gnarking, and with a railing that’s a little too low to be really useful. Another little climb through the woods at the top, and then you’re in sight of the marquee, a quarter mile or so around the edge of the field, and then over a stile, and you’re back home.
Repeat 4 more times and you’re done. Easy.
First time through the marquee, I barely stopped. First loop was done in 02:04, a little faster than I’d planned, but nothing to cause me to worry, I knew I’d slow significantly on future laps (and I did).
Loop 2 was a little slower, and felt easier as I now had an idea of the course in my head, and on each lap, and seemed to pass pretty quickly, in about 02:18.
Loop 3 felt harder. I’d set myself a target of finishing Loop 3 without a headtorch, no real reason for this, it just seemed like a reasonable milestone to hit. Towards the end of Loop 3 I started to feel it for the first time that day. That feeling you get when ‘oh shit there’s still a long way to go’. 28 miles in, with 22 to go, and it’s only going to be harder in the dark. I’ve practised in previous races to try to take my mind off the finish, and enjoy the now, a useful trick I heard on some podcast (no idea which one) is a saying ‘always there, not nearly there’. I interpret this as, forget about the finish, the finish is not the goal, the here and now is the goal, this is what you’ve trained for and paid for. Don’t get all hung up about the finish as the holy grail, the process to get there is what’s important. So with a bit of talking myself round, and shoving more food in my face, I got on with it.
It was starting to get dark by this point, but I didn’t want to give in and put my headtorch on, so I picked my way through the twilight woods. On getting half way up Railing the the Years, I came across a runner slumped against a tree, shivering and looking in a pretty bad way. Another runner and I got his emergency base layer from his pack, got him into this, wrapped him up in a tin foil blanket and fed him. He admitted he was getting confused, and slurring his words. I tried calling the medic, but couldn’t get through. At this point, an off-duty marshal who was out for a quick run came down the hill, we agreed that he’d wait with the runner, while I’d run up to the marquee which was only a few minutes away to summon help. This really highlights the need for the mandatory kit. If it’s barely above freezing, you’re warm enough while moving, but if you stop you can get dangerously cold very quickly. Up at the top, I found Centurion staff and they got some help heading down to him.
Loop 3 done in about 02:29, I grabbed another layer from my drop bag, stopped in the marquee for a cup of tea and a Snickers, got my headtorch on and it was back out into the dark.
It’s amazing how different the course seemed in the dark. I love running through forests in the dark, hearing the noise of the woods and going into my own little bubble as the world shrinks to the size of the beam from your light. It’s as if nothing else exists, and I like that. The course was exceptionally well marked with reflective signs, so I never had a problem staying on course. I felt better on Loop 4, having had more food and a hot drink. One of the things about ultras is that in most races, you’ll have at least one low point, maybe more, especially in 100s, but they never last long. Stick with it and you’ll get through it. It’s bizarre how quickly you can go from ‘fuck it, ultras are ridiculous, why am I doing this, I’m done with ultras’ to ‘woohoo I fucking love ultras, let me sign up for loads more’
Loop 4 was the slowest yet, due to getting tired and being a little more cautious in the dark to not slip or trip. I got it done in about 02:53. Another cup of tea and a Snickers in the marquee and it was on to the final loop.
I set out on Loop 5 now having a good knowledge of the course, knowing I had over 5 hours to complete the race before cut off, so at this point I was pretty comfortable in the knowledge that I’d finish the race, bar any disasters (which is always a remote, but real possibility). I’d been eating well through out the day, and my mood on Loop 5 was up, certainly well up from the mid-point doldrums of Loop 3. Each climb seemed like a victory, knowing I’d not have to do it again. I ticked off each section as I went, knowing by now the order in which they came. Powerline, Hell’s Road, Go Ape, Broken Dreams, Snake, then onto Gnarking and Railing and then the final corner (with stile which seemed to have grown) and through the finish in a total time of 12:37:56.
After being handed a medal and t shirt, and a quick chat with a couple of the runners I’d shared miles with throughout the day, I grabbed a coffee and sat in the car to rest and keep warm before the short drive back to the hotel.
Support on the day from the Centurion crew, the volunteers, the supporters who stood out in the freezing woods all day, and the (slightly bemused) general public was outstanding. Without exception, every single other runner that I spoke to throughout the day, including the superfast leaders who lapped me at some point on Loop 3, was cheery and supportive. At these events, no one is better than anyone, whatever you do in the supposedly ‘real world’ matters not, you really are in it all together, each man or woman against the course, and ready and willing to help each other out.
If you’re the kind of lunatic whose idea of fun is running up and down evil hills in the woods in winter, only to get back the same place you started, then Wendover Woods is the race for you. It’s not easy, it’s not supposed to be. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun…