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.
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. Heading 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. Leaving 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.
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.