27. November 2016

Wendover Woods 50: First Ultramarathon

November. Saturday. Dark, foggy, chilly. These were the conditions for around 200 loopy runners to set off on a loopy five-lap course through the small, pretty & hilly Wendover Woods. 50 miles later, and after arduous 3000m of ascent, I got a fairly thorough taster lesson in ultrarunning.

About three years ago, in 2013, I got into running for longer distances. Mostly by accident. I was training more towards 5k races when I bumped into a fellow student on campus who asked me whether I wanted to run a 10k race the other day. And that qualified me for a 30k race. And so it continues over the years until I find myself in 2016 at the highest point of the Chilterns on a grazing field (without the cows), trying to find a good spot to attach my race number before attempting a course that is longer in distance, and climbs more than I ever tried before.

Wendover Woods is a scenic area north of London, although these woodlands covering a few square kilometers. That’s not a lot but maybe just enough trees to call it a forest. Given that most of the countryside only features few trees here and there. So how do you arrange a 50 mile footrace that never leaves Wendover Woods. Make it several laps and include as many small loops in one lap as you can. We must go deeper.

So I finally ended the struggle with my race number (I believe I won). Not much fuzz made at the start, the race briefing is kept to the bare minimum, and then just a quick countdown. That’s the way I like it. I don’t need any pre-race entertainment while wondering how to keep yourself warm within the herd of runners. Off we go.

Leaves are everywhere and some colour remains on the trees. Fortunately, after some rain during the week, the Friday was dry, and it is not nearly as muddy as expected. Almost, dry, actually. The leaves, while pretty, are treacheros and one needs to pay attention because they cover roots and rocks, perfect opportunities for the perfect faceplant.

Up and down it goes, touching the Ridgeway, going down on a slippery slope along a power line, crossing a field, ascending gradually, and winding its way towards the first checkpoint. However, disappointment strikes. A few meters before the checkpoint, we are sent on a sharp right turn up what the organizers dubbed “Hell’s Road” after which there are lots of “unnecessary” turns and climbs before we drop back into the valley. This time, we actually reach the checkpoint. I give the checkpoint the nickname “Hell’s Kitchen”. However, it does not live up to its nickname. The checkpoint is nicely stocked with fruit, wraps, sandwiches and whatever else you need to keep yourself going on this mad zigzag through the weekend attraction that is Wendover Woods.

It is tempting to linger around at the aid stations but this is not smart. Our legs would start getting heavy, so we continue after the second breakfast. Eating, and that is no news to anyone in the ultrarunning world, is of utmost importance and I believe, amongst other things, I must have eaten something like 30 wraps (a few bites) throughout the whole race.

I feel much better than two weeks before. After more ascents that have names such as “Gnarking around“or “Railing in The Years” we reach the starting point again after just under two hours to begin the second lap. Lots of opportunities of déjà vu […]. The nice thing about trail races, I find, is that you have to pay a significant amount of attention to where you step that you don’t have time to worry about the remaining distance – you just live for the moment.

The course was exceptionally well-marked. I went on a trail race once and got lost many times (also because I felt I could not be bothered to read the checklist with ~180 items). Not this time. Now, I don’t have to describe lap two because it is pretty much like lap one. So is lap three except that my legs are now showing signs of fatigue by mile 25 and I need to start working a bit harder to keep going. After some initial struggling at lap four, I get back into my rhythm. There are lots of walking breaks, every time the path ascends, it is time to conserve energy and run only on the flat and downhill bits. I start being lapped by the first runners of the race – wow, it looks so easy!

By lap five, it is dark and I put my headtorch on. I am not sure whether I am now going to pay the price for not paying attention to my coach (who prepped me for the whole thing– thank you so much!): test your headtorch in advance. Well, at least I made sure it had a fresh set of batteries, fit on my head, and I knew how to turn it on. And this time, I fortunatelyget away with such sloppy preparation in this aspect. In many other aspects, I had spent much more thought and efforts on thorough testing to make sure that things go smoothly on race day.

So back in the dark. No more fog though except for the vapour of my own breath which keeps blocking my sight unless I pay attention to breathing out in a certain direction. By now I am mostly alone and do not see many other runners. Here and there you can see bright dots moving through the forest, the shiny spots produced by the headtorches of other runners fighting their way through the dark. It reminds me of a nocturnal ice-skating trip in Sweden.

Lap five is going smoothly again. To my own surprise, I got a few reserves left and since I don’t have to hold back anymore, I can give it all. The last bloody stile out of the way, I am back on the grazing field after 11 hours of being on the move, getting a deserved bowl of hot soup, a couple of cups of tea, before I hobble back home. What a first glimpse into the world of ultrarunning.