• Henry Morris

Marlborough Downs Challenge 2013

The Marlborough Downs Challenge rolls over verdant Wiltshire countryside, criss-crosses ancient paths and trails, ascends the biggest hills in the locality and brings you into contact with imperious human additions to the landscape:  The Cherhill Monument and White Horse, the pre-historic stone circle at Avebury and the Kennet and Avon Canal. For many reasons this is one of my favourite events; In 2009 it was the first ultra I ever ran, I get to run with my brother who lives nearby, the route is glorious, the sun always seems to shine, it’s well organised and it’s very runnable. If this weren’t enough, the KLF/Timelords, the band I answered questions on on Mastermind, filmed large parts of the video for their number 1 Doctorin The Tardis on sections of the route.

So after another long week of personal training in North London, I swapped Kentish Town for Marlborough and arrived at the start with my brother where we met my friend Robbie Dolan. Ed and Robbie, both in vests, were sporting some dramatic sunburn lines which looked quite comical as we made our way to the start at Marlborough College. The weather was promising with sunny blue skies framing the early morning greenery. And with heavy rain forecast later in the day we had every incentive to get around the route as quickly as possible whilst the sun still shone.

Following on from the Yorkshire 3 Peaks a fortnight earlier, I decided to try and stick with Ed this time and see if I could keep up. At 9am and under clear skies, we were on our way. We set off at the front of the race and comfortably settled in somewhere around 10th place. Travelling over fields into the glorious bluebell woods thick with the scent of wild garlic, we progressed onto the Wansdyke path as the sun gradually receding into thin white cloud. For the next 7 or 8 miles the pace was settled and for a couple of checkpoints, with the nearest runners a couple of hundred metres in front and a behind, we shared the fields with bemused cattle and darting swallows.

By the time we reached the Kennet and Avon canal, a place we had pre-arranged to go hard and fast, I began to feel stretched trying to keep up with Ed. The long canal section is around 3 miles of flat concrete path. I can run a 5k (3.1 miles) in 19 minutes on a good day and so presumed trying to keep up with Ed over this distance would be simple. I kept with him for the duration of the canal but it had become a big strain as we arrived at Checkpoint 4, and as I paused to drink, he was off again up and I wasn’t. In relation to the speed we were travelling I don’t think I’d taken on enough fuel in the previous hour and slowed right down. He disappeared into the distance whilst my previously steady speed regressed into a plod. Approaching the next steep climb I resolved to walk it and hoped that temporarily taking my foot off the gas would allow me enough recovery to get going again once I reached the top. Whilst thinking this and marching up the hill, out of nowhere a pulse of about ten competitors appeared, all of whom sailed past me up the slope. Not good I thought. I pressed on to the next checkpoint concerned at my deteriorating pace as another group of  four or five runners again passed me shortly before it. At 18 miles in we were over half way, but I had seriously mistimed my race if I was flagging this much already.

Travelling over hills, around the edge of ploughed fields and through churned up grazing land, my sore feet, hamstrings and a continuing energy deficit conspired to keep me from running at a speed I was happy with. It was no less than my strategy deserved though, as yet more runners overtook me shortly before Checkpoint 6 at 21 miles. This time I decided to have a proper refuel (jelly babies) and mini rest (1 minute) in order to collect myself. It didn’t feel like it had worked as a trekked upwards across Cherhill Down towards the monument and White Horse but as I passed over the top at 22 miles in and began to descend, my body came alive again. I put some music on and things further improved. From here on in I felt like I was motoring, which was apt because I was running by the A4, and I pressed on with renewed vigour to checkpoint 7 just short of Avebury.

I didn’t pause for long here, but again, despite my improved pace, runners were bearing down on me. Not this time I thought, and set off again through the relative bustle of Avebury and it’s stone circle. I like how this ancient ring of rocks manages to remain stubbornly ethereal despite the village having been built directly in it’s centre and the coachloads of ice-cream guzzling tourists clambering all over it. Temporarily distracted, I pushed on into a light drizzle and prepared my self for the final seven or so miles, plotting to go steady away up and over the Ridgeway before turning it on over the last 5k to the finish. And as the rain began to really set in, this is exactly what I did. With three miles to go I arrived at Checkpoint 8 having successfully pushed ahead of the runners behind me as it also began occur that I might still have a sub 5 hour finish left in me. I only had 25 minutes to do it though, so with 30 miles done, I hared off towards the finish line. For the first time since the very start, I went past people, reclaiming positions from five or six of the blokes who’d gone past me when I was flagging. As the end approached, the rain thickened and I looked relentlessly between my watch and the steady downhill trail, I pushed harder and harder to get back to the finish.

Unfortunately though it wasn’t to be and with only the final turn to go, the number 4 turned into a number 5 on my watch face and agonisingly short, I crossed the line in 5.02.29, 23rd place overall. Nonetheless I was happy with my recovery after a big dip in the third quarter of the race and happy to finish in a personal best time for the 33 miles and 3000+ feet of elevation on this route.

I suspect if I’d set off at a slightly slower pace and not tried to keep up with Ed (who finished 9th in 4.46.40) I would have probably maintained a more consistent pace overall and subsequently finished quicker. Speculation which I’ll put into practise next year. Next up though is the Hardmoors 110 miler in two weeks time. I’ve got 33 hours to beat from 2012 and after my running in recent weeks, I’m feeling confident. Although as Ed’s not running any of it this time, I’ll have to think of someone else to blame if I don’t.

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