Imber Ultra, what a lovely day – Ultra 3 of 12

Having already raced 100 miles in the preceding 4 weeks my body was feeling far from race fit with a taped left foot to support the ankle, taped right ankle after I’d dropped the bike on it, strapped right knee and I was absolutely dog tired for the entire week leading up to The Imber Ultra, my 3rd of 12 Ultra Marathons in 2016. If I hadn’t publicly committed to the challenge and received sponsorship for it I would have just stayed in bed come Sunday morning.

But at 6.00am I dragged my aching bones from my pit, grudgingly readied myself for the day ahead and limped into a bitterly cold morning. I arrived with a 20 mins to spare & collected my race number & route description and said a quick hello to Roger (@irunoffroad) before the race briefing.

We were set on our way by the the town crier at 9.00am & took the lap of the playing fields, designed to spread the (already sparse) field out a bit before we head out onto the road for a short stretch turning onto a narrow track then taking the 1.5 mile muddy climb up to the ridge. From the start I was uncomfortable, the knee being the most concerning niggle, feeling like it had no strength and would give occasionally. Once warmed up I got into a slow stride for the first 7 undulating miles taking us up and down around the ridgeline, the descents were the most difficult as the lack of support in my knee was disconcerting and I was surprised how hilly the route was already.

I had been tailing a pack of Fareham Crusaders (@fcrc) but after descending to a crossroads realising I couldn’t see any other runners either in front or behind I opted to turn left down the road and slowed to a walk to check the route description and suddenly got overrun by a chasing pack. There was a mixed bunch in the group, including 3 guys with an Eastleigh Runner among them a couple guys with a Gosport Road Runner, 2 solo females Beth (@pfb2030) from Victory and a local Avon Valley Runner, Damien Hall (@damo_hall) and now me. Most of this group stayed together for the next 10 miles and it was great to have the company on a day that was always going to be psychologically tough.

We headed over a couple Iron Age forts on short but steep hillsides providing nice views with a friendly greeting from the volunteers at CP1 nestled between them, it was at this CP that Damien dropped off the group which was a shame as I had been hoping to pick his brains about The Spine Race but the rest of us plodded on chatting about the various races we had done, were planning on doing and food. We talked a lot about food.

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Running out across fields and some stretches on the military road we made our way round to CP2 at around 13.5 miles, I realised I was already flagging a bit and my energy levels had dipped so grabbing a cupcake from the CP I walked on, consuming further Pepperami, Haribo & a few good swigs of Tailwind to get me going again. I struggled on for a while and the group started to stretch out as the stronger runners pulled away and those making slower progress dropped off. 2016-03-06 12.09.18Heading over the plains we passed the German Village where the military were conducting a training op so there was lots of machine gun fire and activity as I shuffled along.  Just after this the route description advises us to look around, as we’re in the middle of nowhere and following the instruction I stopped to take it in for a moment, it is remarkable that in a country that is so heavily populated, particularly in the South you can still find yourself in spots were no civilisation is in view for miles.

The temperature had dropped as it became cloudier and a couple very brief hail showers reminded us we were out in March so I was very glad to take the descent down to the road and the long ascent before a warm welcome and cakes at CP3. 2016-03-12 19.15.41Leaving it after grabbing yet more cake I passed a few barrows and dropped to the military road again just in time to be passed by a convoy of tanks belting along, providing some further light entertainment before climbing yet another hill. Reaching the top my heart sank as the route was now visible undulated along the grassy trail for miles. This section became the most difficult of the day, I was tired and sore, I’d been alone for several miles and was having use the tactic of running to a point then walking for a while as I was struggling for motivation. Arriving at CP4 I caught up with Beth again who told me she was going to pull out as she was cramping but with just 11 miles I argued she’d regret it if she did stop now and said we could run together. This was by no means a selfless act as the company did me good and although we were both quiet as we fought our demons for a mile or 2 we soon got into a rhythm of a slow run downhill or flats and walking uphill, both pointing out markers to run too and chatting happily.

Once into our flow it didn’t seem to take long to arrive at the final CP, where we were greeted with the customary warmth and support of all of the CP’s all day. We shared a Mars Bar at this final stop before continuing on, after a very low flying plane passed overhead we turned uphill walking the long final climb.

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Once at the top we had about 2 miles skirting the top of the ridge looking for the correct red flag that marked our point of descent down the muddy trail. We were passed by one of the original pack from 20 miles earlier who I’d last seen before CP3 who was finishing really strong just before we reached the turn off, we started to drop with me leading the way when I was startled by a screech and colourful language from behind me, turning Beth was prostrate on the ground appearing like she was attempting to bring back the trend of planking in inappropriate places. As we had JUST been having a conversation about severe injuries caused by innocuous trips I was initially concerned before she got up still smiling. Again, my concern was not entirely selfless. I didn’t fancy carrying her downhill for the remaining 1.5miles. We took our time down the rest of the descent, which was far muddier than when we’d climbed it earlier having been churned up by all the returning runners and Sunday walkers since we’d set off. Finally reaching the turns towards the leisure centre, we were caught by a group at the bottom so we pushed on to finish just ahead. Not that I’m competitive you understand.

A last heartfelt welcome as we crossed the finish line in 67th position after 6hr 40mins and we were handed our goody bags containing a mug & Avon Road Runners buffalike, Mars Bar & Banana. I’ll take these over a t-shirt any day of the week. Roger came in just a minute behind also having had a strong finish and he too was enthused with the support out on the course. I then got chatting with Mike Julien of Tailwind which had helped fuel me around the route, Mike had finished just minutes behind me and completed it in just sandals! What a legend! Then to top off a great day Damien Hall came in (behind me) and I finally got to say hello.

I hadn’t wanted to do this race and all week I had been dreading it, it was a struggle and I really shouldn’t have been out there but having got round I am very glad I did. The route was far more challenging than I’d expected with almost 4000ft of ascent and although long stretches are on featureless plains there was a surprising amount going on to occupy the mind and some nice views. Considering a field of less than 150 I was taken aback by the support, I suspect the route lends itself to family making their way around to continually catch up with their runners but they were behind all of us as we passed and the marshals and volunteers were among the best I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. But for me it was the other entrants that really made this a lovely day, as it was such a low key event for 2 great causes it appeared to have attracted a lot of kindred spirits and their company throughout the day made it not only bearable but enjoyable despite my discomfort.

So Ultra 3 of 12 completed…. 25% of the way already, now time to repair & rebuild.

The Imber Ultra is event organised by Avon Valley Runners and the Rotary Club of Westbury and all proceeds are given to Hope for Tomorrow and Julia’s House Childrens Hospice.

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Meon Valley Plod 2016

I did the Plod for the first time in 2015 and it very nearly broke me. I’d entered on the day, hadn’t trained anywhere near enough and was suffering with the dreaded ITBS. Despite being in agony from the  12 mile point and spending more time at a walk than a run in the final few miles I bloody loved it. So much so that I’d been checking the website almost obsessively waiting for entries to open & registered as soon as they did. All was good, I thought it would be a great addition to my race calendar & it would be ideal mileage in preparation for my big events over the summer.

Then I received the email from Phil Hoy telling us that it was tougher than it’s ever been.

Deep joy.

I arrived early on race day, registering & hanging around the village hall chatting to a few runners I knew before including Carlo (@cvlsfc) who I first met when we both ran the Great South Run 2013 in fancy dress for MNDA. As I do more of these distance trail races in the South I am starting to recognise more & more regular runners and this is nice.

During the briefing Phil went to great lengths to explain just how tough this year’s route was, pointing out that this would not be a PB course so we were better just ensuring we get to the finish adding if we were out of breath on the first 2 climbs we were going to be in trouble. He then led the multi-coloured throngs to the start line on the outskirts of the housing estate and at 10.30am we were off.

A brief descent on the road led us to the first of many big ascents, starting off steep before it flattened out taking a long steady incline over the top of Salt Hill, climbing 364ft in the first mile. I was blowing out of my arse by the time we reached the double back at the top – but at least I hadn’t slipped & pulled a hamstring like one of the other runners I saw.  Reaching the road we descended rapidly, I maintained a steady pace but in retrospect I wish I’d gained some time on this section, but this is the price you pay for not knowing the route.  Heading into Hen Woods the trail undulated continuously before a short fast descent down to a gate that we had to duck under, jump over or limbo. I opted to duck under before hitting the stretch of road this time taking the opportunity to pick up the pace a little as we descended to Meon Springs, leaving the road to follow the South Downs Way towards Old Winchester Hill and the first (but most definitely not the last) very muddy stretch of the race. A great technical single track preceded a steep but tricky grass descent with fabulous views over field and valley. After following the lumpy field we picked up the road we’d run down earlier heading pack up Salt Hill but taking a steep descent off the side half way across. By this point I had been shadowing a quartet of Hedge End Runners for miles often overtaking  on more technical sections or particularly fast descents but then being caught and passed on the flatter parts but we had also now started sharing pleasantries, one of them was an incredibly strong runner and spent the last few miles running back & forth past me.

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We now made a further long ascent followed by another steep descent before the route took us up the shoulder of Butser Hill with about 5 miles to go although we descended immediately before reaching the summit, along a chalk path heavily eroded making a fast descent on tired legs difficult. I had now started catching a number of other runners that were obviously struggling for a variety of reasons, many I would accompany for a while having a brief chat before I pulled away. Slowly.

We then hit the more notorious stretch of the race, first struggling along a quagmire that was unavoidable even if I had the strength and will to try anymore. Wading through thick mud that was ankle deep sapped my remaining energy & when we finally escaped this we were directed up a river. This started as a relief, cleaning the heavy sticky mud from my shoes but it became progressively deeper before we again hit pockets of fetid filth coating my footwear in foul & heavy muck.

Reaching a road again was a huge relief, but this was short lived as it soon climbed steeply towards a ridge were I could see runners passing above us in the opposite direction. Finally dragging my tired and sore body to the top of the ascent & over the style I forced myself to run along the ridge until we descended steeply again. Into the mire.

We had been warned about this bit. Repeatedly. I’ve heard other runners whispering in hushed tones about the mud behind the church, but last year the weather had been dry and I it wasn’t a problem. This year it was. Knee deep mud in many places, churned up by all the other runners passing, with hidden rocks and off camber lumps underneath meant staying upright  (never mind making progress) was a fight. One I lost, slipping and falling arse over tit into the slime. With half a mile to go this was frustrating but we eventually fought our way through gladly reaching the road and plodding down it to complete the plod.

I passed the line 10 minutes faster more comfortably than the previous year, despite the route being muddier, hillier and a longer than 2015 which shows progress from my recent efforts. It was a brilliant event yet again and reminds me very much of a mini ultra marathon, the camaraderie is great, the checkpoints well stocked and the marshals are superb. Phil Hoy however is a sadist.

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