Features The Ridgeway Challenge

Published on January 7, 2014

The Ridgeway Challenge

There are plenty of reasons to enter an ultra and my decision to tackle the Ridgeway Challenge – my longest ever run at 85miles – was born out of post-race blues following my experiences at the Namibia 24hour Ultra back in May. What to do next? I needed something achievable that would up the stakes a little from Namibia (78miles), was much closer to home and wouldn’t break the bank. A little ‘Google Time’ and the answer was obvious: The Ridgeway Challenge follows an ancient route (‘Britain’s Oldest Road’) from Ivinghoe Beacon in Bedfordshire to Avebury in Wiltshire, it started (and ended) less than forty miles from my doorstep and cost less that £40. I was in…

The race started not with a bang, but a whimper – it was so low-key I, and many others, almost missed it and it wasn’t until a field of runners began hurtling down the nearby chalky slopes that I realised I should join in. Make no mistake, The Ridgeway is a hilly run and it starts as it means to go on with constant undulations punctuated by the occasional proper groaner of a slope. But as the field of runners spread out the beauty of the run also became apparent.

The trail, being part of a National Route, is well waymarked throughout, but a good map and GPS were still useful – I had programmed my Garmin not only with the water stations (of which there were 9) but with a series of additional points that would mentally help break down the race into more manageable chunks. In fact I always take this reduction process further on ultras by eating every 20 minutes (6000kcal for the full distance) and taking a self-portrait pic – a ‘selfie’, I believe the yuff might say, every hour on the hour. The latter of course proves no real purpose, but does give you something to do every 60 minutes and results in an amusing ‘flick book of horror’ at the end of the ordeal. (Try it and send RunningMonkey the results.)

My only real mistake in preparation came just after 7 hours of running. I knew that sunset was at 8 and had planned a brief pit-stop at that point to sort out my head-torch and other night time essential, but almost an hour earlier that I had anticipated I began to lose the light due to the thick woods I found myself in. With growing dusk and each faltering footstep I realised I was leaving it way too late to sort out my light and if I tried to unpack and find my torch now I was likely to drop kit and generally have a hard time of repacking. No choice but to head on through the woods, tripping with almost every step over exposed roots and adverse cambers. Just before 8pm I broke out from the woods and found myself on a short paved section that was thankfully illuminated. Head-torch now in place, I trudged on towards the half-way point at Goring.

All the water stations had thus far been fantastically laden with the most bountiful of snacks, fruits and drinks but Goring offered up another temptation: A full-on hot meal. This presented me with a dilemma – to indulge or do a quick refuel with what I was carrying and head on. Despite the temptation I skipped the meal, layered up with a sweatshirt and downed a less that satisfying combination of gels, Clif Bars and a true shock-to-the-system caffeine shot.

I was glad of my decision almost at once as the timing meant that I spent the next hour running besides a fascinating Paediatric Consultant who regaled me with tales of both his previous running exploits and his extensive travels and work in East Africa. These transient meetings are the life blood of ultras to me; complete strangers come into your life, share the pain, the laughter and the effort for however long your paces coincide and then are often gone forever into the night – sometimes you may never see these people again, sometimes they will become friends for life. This, to me, is the purity and beauty of endurance running.

Midnight also came and went and by now the route was following the ‘high’ Ridgeway – the exposed stretch that replaces the more undulating, wooded early sections. But still the route rolled constantly up and down, the effort of which was increased by what seemed like a constant headwind – at times it was so strong I felt I could have leant into it at a 40degee angle. I didn’t try it.

By checkpoint 7 I was already feeling exhausted and when I commented to one of the unsung hero water station volunteers that I would soon be passing the famous chalk outline of the Uffington White Horse, they responded that I was unlikely to see it in the dark. They clearly had no idea how slowly I now thought I was running – it could easily be dawn by the time I reached it…

In fact the White Horse came and went in the dark, but finally I saw a glow ahead of me that I thought was sunrise; it turned out to be Swindon (not a sentence you can often use…) Eventually the sun did rise – directly behind me and not in the direction of Swindon at all, probably a sign of how exhausted and disorientated I was now feeling.

With the sun now up proper I headed back down past CP20 crossing the M4 (by bridge not Frogger-style) and over a series of hills, each of which was now testing me to the limit as my walk/run strategy began to ebb into a walk/walk strategy. I revised my likely finishing time from 20(ish) hours to 21(ish) hours but knew that if I could just keep putting one foot in front of the other I would make it…

My only negative experience of the CP staff came at water station 9 (the last CP) where, without a hint of either jocularity or sympathy someone said, ‘Well at least you’re not last’. It was, however, enough to spur me on for the final 10k trudge, each step of which now felt like walking on broken glass. Early morning dog walkers were replaced my mid-morning dog walkers but at last, down below, was the glorious, delirious sight of Avebury with its distinctive stone circle and other-worldly appearance.

With less and 500 meters to go, I rounded a corner and saw my wife and son, proudly waving and holding up a ‘Well Done Daddy’ banner – I could have cried, but instead did my impression of a sprint finish which, after nearly 23 hours of running, was more akin to a jogging motion undertaken by someone who had inadvertently soiled themselves (for the record I hadn’t.)

Cheering well-wishers ushered me into the tiny village hall where I was served stone cold tea that tasted like it had been brewing for as long as I had been running. It was the best tea I had ever tasted.

As an all round experience I cannot recommend the Ridgeway Challenge highly enough, the organisation by the Trail Runners Association is impeccable, the terrain a true challenge and the scenery, at times, utterly breathtaking. Now, what next…

Feature by Justin Bowyer

Image © Hamish Fenton

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