Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Downslink Ultra - off to the seaside

"Don't fear moving slowly forward ... fear standing still."  Kathleen Harris

The 5th Downslink Ultra race would take place on Sunday 1st October.  The route starts at St Martha's Hill, near Guilford in Surrey, and after the initial hills are mainly flat bridleways and footpaths along disused railway lines to eventually finish in Shoreham by the sea.  The course is 38 miles and credited as an "ideal first Ultra", which was ideal as my last ultra of the year.  I had spotted the race in 2016 but it had filled up before I had a chance to enter.

This could be fun!

The last time I was at St Marth's Hill was part of the Pilgrim's Challenge in February and the initial decent would be quite hard due to the steepness and soft soil underfoot.  The weather was also looking to be "challenging" with the tail of a hurricane push back across the Atlantic and due to make landfall during the day.  To be fair, I have escaped really bad weather during races other than the storm during Imber in March but even so, there was not much in the way of rain.  Not that it bothers me, I've waterproof skin.

With a few days before the race, my friend Maria volunteered to crew me for the day.  This would be brilliant if I could get another room booked at short notice.  Having used FAC-OFF crews at Butcombe and Salisbury the idea was a no-brainer and the long drive back after would not be an extra endurance test on top of the race.  We travelled down on the Saturday, car loaded with enough kit in the case or most eventualities and arrived in Shoreham about 5pm.   The house and rooms were wonderful, as was the host.  We took a walk into town in search of food and passed, what I can only call, a shanty town of houseboats.  After a pasta meal, it was time to get back and carry out last checks before the early morning.

Don't get these on the Kennet & Avon!

The Airbnb host was awake and preparing breakfast prior to the alarm sounding and after a quick shower we ate well and filled up our coffee mugs before heading out the door at 6:50 to travel to the start.  The uneventful journey got us to the destination in plenty of time, but the car park was filling up quickly.  I booked in and then joined the loo queue, before returning to the car to change shoes and fit my pack.  With 15 minutes to go, we headed up the trail to the start flags.  The stunning view we had been promised was shrouded in low cloud and mist.

After a few minutes delay, we were given the race brief, then lined up behind the start flag and then we were off!    The route heads initially east and then turns south, dropping down for a mile from the top of the hill before climbing Blackheath for the next mile, looping west around Chilworth.  Mile 3 is again another downhill and, like the previous two miles, along narrow and very muddy tracks.  The next mile started with crossing the B2128, still heading west, into the south Shalford before turning south-east and dropping onto the Downslink path at 5 miles.  From 5 to 10 miles to Cranleigh set the scenery for most of the race, long straight sections of foot/cycle/bridle path with trees either side and little variation.  Parts of the course are treated surfaces and others slippery mud - not much deviation.  I met Maria briefly at 6 miles but needed no extra food or water so agreed to meet at 12/13 miles.

somewhere on the course?

At 12.7 miles we passed the remnants of Baynards Station and then after tackling a very muddy section I met up with Maria again.  I was doing okay and had plenty of water and so took a Snickers bar and continued.  I passed the half marathon point, a small town called Rudgwick, at about 2 hours 20 minutes, not special but I felt strong and there was only a marathon left to run.  Bonus!!

The route continued along the tree-lined tunnel until about 18 miles, near Horsham, where the route joins the road for about a mile before looping back and joining it again at Christ's Hospital School and then on to Southwater just after 20 miles.  I met up with Maria in a car park and topped up my water bottles, took a few more gels, took a collection of nuts & pretzels and downed some flat Coke before heading off again.

One of the many bridges crossing the track.

At 23.5 miles I passed through the old West Grinstead station before arriving at Partridge Green at 26 miles where the route joins the B2135 for a short while before joining the trail again just Stan's Bike Shack.  I had passed through the marathon distance at 4:42:40, my second fastest marathon time.  At 29.5 miles the route passed through Henfield and an excellent aid station, complete with hot roasted potatoes.  By now the weather was starting to turn wet, a light mist of rain on the wind made the going a little more interesting.  Just after 31 miles the course left the track and joined some minor roads, the tree cover now completely gone the light rain started to soak us through.

Bit damp!

The route led us through Bramber at 32 miles.  Looking in at the houses, water dripping off every inch of me, covered in mud, body screaming, I thought "it would be nice to stop".  I shook the stupid idea from my head and carried on to meet Maria at our last arranged pit-stop at 33 miles.  The final part of the race would be even more open and follow the river Adur towards the sea.  I was already wet and getting colder as the afternoon drew on, so taking my crew's advice I just put my heavy duty waterproof over what I had on and continued.  5 miles left!!

The last (uneven) mile

Putting on the coat had been an excellent call.  I was warming up and sheltered from the wind that blew down the estuary.  At 37 miles the path ran under the A27 and then across the footbridge towards Shoreham Airport.  Most of the last mile is along uneven slabs, however, having seen a few runners starting to catch up I picked up my pace a little to keep the distance between us.  I dropped down under the railway line, rounded some bushes to see a barrier and a crowd of people including Maria.  "Just round that corner" she called as I put on one last hobbling spurt, rounded the corner into the Scout Hut grounds and passed under the arch in 7:04:31 (73/140).  DONE!!

I was tired, but I had pushed myself harder than I have in other races this year.  Although 2 different trail ultra races can't be measured against each other I had gained a PB over 50k by some 20 minutes.  The course was mentally one of the hardest I've run due to the miles of "green tunnels" and being able to see the course a few miles ahead as it's so straight.

The recovery room.

I showered and we set off, both weary from battle, on the 3-hour drive back to Trowbridge, but not before stopping for pizza!!!  Massive thank you to Maria for being at the right places and making some good calls.

Kit used:  Altra Olympus cushioned trail shoes, Injinji toe socks, Dirty Girl Gaiters and Decathalon Quechua Forclaz 400 jacket and Salomon S-LAB Adv Skin3 12 Set.

Fuelling:  I fuelled on Tailwind, Torq gels, nuts, pretzels and Maria's flapjack!!

Would I do it again? I certainly enjoyed it but may leave it a year or so to return.

My Strava link

Downs Link route information

Sussex Trail Events

Wonderful AirBnB in Shoreham

Stephen Cousins great GoPro film of the race from 2015.

Monday, 25 September 2017

TP100 - Training Blog 2 - Imber Ultra Night Run

Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness.  Dean Karnazes

I had spoken to Nick T about training runs for the Thames Path (TP100) and he had suggested a few night runs of at least marathon distance to build up endurance of the mind during the hours of darkness.  So the idea came to me of running Imber in September and opening the run up to others that may be interested.  After a few false starts, I went for Friday 22 September.  The run would start at 9pm from the leisure centre in Westbury, after a full day's work but allowing the weekend to recover.  I managed to rope Ian Harryman into the organisation of the run as he had run sweeper for the race a few times and knows the course well.

I often run up on the Plain, memories of training in the area with the TA in the early 80's flood back. After a week at work, we would travel on the back of covered 4 tonne Bedford lorries on a Friday night from Heston (West London), arriving in the early hours, to be "tactically" dropped off at a given checkpoint.  

I cobbled together a disclaimer for the closed Facebook page I had set up.  Everybody had to be aware that they were responsible for themselves, there would be no aid stations or sweep vehicles to pick up those deciding to DNF.  Emergencies are one thing, not being fit enough to complete the course or carrying enough fuel is another.

After contacting the leisure centre and getting approval for parking for the night and I then looked at places to cache water bottles on the route for refilling at whatever time of the morning we would pass. Somewhere between Chitterne or Tilshead seemed ideal and on Thursday I purchased the bottles of water and secreted it by an easily found signpost just out of Tilshead, trying to memorise the spot for the next night.

Hidden in plain sight, hope we can find it again!

The noise from these vehicles ensured every squaddie or SOXMIS on the Plain new another unit had arrived.  From the checkpoint, we would head out, and normally spend the rest of the night and most of the next day patrolling backwards and forwards across the training area with the occasional ambush or task to complete.  I was never a Rambo or super fit but I could use a rifle and carried out my duties well.

I go through dark stages in my life, that little black dog that has followed me since the Gulf War and catches me up to bite me occasionally.  When I ran the Imber Ultra in March it was not only a struggle with the elements and the course, I was struggling in my head as well.  I was ready to give up at two points, only to be urged on by two very close and special friends.  Denise was on one of the aid stations and Matt had even driven out onto the course to see me.  Leading up to the night run I was starting to struggle again but tried to stay focused as I had set up the run!

The weather had been looking to be good on the evening, low's of 14 degrees and little wind would make ideal conditions.  The cloud cover would keep in the heat but deny us the moon's light, however, as we moved into Friday light rain and 20 miles per hour gusts were now being forecast overnight.  During the day two of the original runners had to drop out and Ian Harryman also had to drop out on doctors orders, leaving 6 runners for the evening.

Richard and Nick - old friends

Nicky and Anne doing last minute prep

Collecting Nick from the train station and returning home we chatted as we prepared our kit for the evening, filled our water bottles and made a cup of coffee for the journey.  Last checks - buff and bracelet, can wing it with the rest.  We arrived at the leisure centre at exactly 8:30 to find Richard and Paula had already arrived.  Paula had been the first lady finisher in the Imber Ultra race in March.  Minutes later Anne and Nicky arrived.  We spent a few minutes on introductions before kiting up and final checks.  Then we set off, Paula setting the early pace to base of the initial climb up onto Plain and, like true ultra runners, we walk the hill.

At the top of the climb, we turn right (south-west) onto the range path and start running until the 2-mile point where the route leaves the range road and drops rapidly south-east towards Warminster camp where we turn north-west.  The camp was eerily quiet, much like the initial few miles.  I received a phone call at this point from Ian Harryman, who was initially due to run with us, to say he would meet us in Chitterne with coffee and goodies!! Through the camp at 5 miles, we turned right (south-east again) and started the next climb up to Battlesbury Wood, across to Scratchbury Hill to Cotley Hill. Three of us had GPS devices and still, we managed to go "slightly astray" requiring us to climb a barbed wire fence and trecking across a freshly ploughed field until we reached the path again.  Once back on the route we headed across towards Heytesbury.  Around Heytesbury we could hear a party nearby and then passed a teenage girl walking the opposite direction, we asked if she was okay and she seemed happy enough so we continued.

The section from Heytesbury to Chitterne is west across tank tracks and rutted paths, making it all too easy to turn your ankles.  We passed some bemused looking squaddies sat in two armoured vehicles before the path led us across fields to a very narrow and overgrown track.  I had managed to faceplant in a large puddle here during the race in March so was very aware of how badly rutted the path was. The path narrows more as you get closer to the village, stinging nettles and brambles across the path, but trying to keep up a pace you ignore the scratches and stings to get through as fast as possible.  Finally, we were in the village and Ian was waiting for us with coffee, fruit, flapjack and water.  What a hero!!!  At this point, Nicky decided her Achilles was hurting her too much to continue and returned to the start with Ian to sleep in Anne's car.

Ian, our hero of the night.

Best aid station on the course.

We followed the road through the village and then back out into the fields east towards Copehill Down German Village.  The village had been built during the cold war as a training area for fighting in built-up areas and I had been there a few times during my time in green.  I seem to remember saying to myself in those days "why am I out here in the cold while everyone else is asleep?"  We could hear more tracked vehicles out across the plain, but nothing close so we didn't need to worry, yet.  A light rain was trying fall, but not enough to soak us or dampen our spirits, however, Richard's hip was starting to cause him some pain and was beginning to slow him down.  The lights of Westdown Camp at Tilshead got closer and guided us north-east until we eventually dropped down into Tilshead and north-west up to where I had hidden the water.  

As we filled our bottles a convoy of armoured vehicles came into view, very close to the path we would be taking.  I became a touch nervous, having seen what these vehicles can do to unwary travellers in the night, but kept it to myself. 

Water recovered - Paula and Anne
Saturday night we would strike camp, dig trenches, eat and spend the night defending the area from the "enemy" (normally sergeants and above from the unit).  The weekend finished with an advance to the enemy camp and a firefight to over-run the area.  Finally, completely shattered, back onto the vehicles and travel east towards London, the tired young faces of my company stared back from across the opposite seats.  They have not aged in my memories. 

The next section from Tilshead to Gore Cross was slower, continuing north-west, the track is undulating and the grass is long,  tethered with Richard only able to run short distances time started to tick away.  Eventually, we reached the cottages at Gore Cross and turned west on the final leg of the course along the hardened range road that would take us all the way back to Westbury, with a few more climbs to keep us busy, the first being 3.5 miles.  As we climbed the temperature dropped and we stopped briefly to add layers before heading on again.

power-hiking the last miles near Edington

As we "power hiked" I spoke to Paula about her recollections of the race.  Her main memory was the weather, and the noise of the wind constantly battering us on this last stage.  In stark contrast, there was little or no noise through the night other than a few wood pigeons and owls claiming their territory, and the occasional armoured vehicles churning up the countryside!!

Finally, we were passing Bratton Camp car park and the route turned south-west past the chalk pit, along to the flagpole which indicated we had 1 mile left, all downhill!!  Eventually, we entered the car park, a few hours later than expected but still in really good spirits.  Nicky woke as we approached the car she was sleeping in and asked why we'd been so long?

Stripping off packs and loading cars we decided it had been a great night and another should be planned.  I already had a plan.

Would I do it again?  It was better in the dark!!


And then I see a darkness
Did you know how much I love you?
Is a hope that somehow you, you
Can save me from this darkness
Will Oldham