• Henry Morris

Marlborough Downs Challenge 33 - 2019

A fortnight ago I had to withdraw from the epic Fellsman race because I had the annoying

sort of cold that doesn’t prevent you doing boring stuff like going to work, but does prevent

you doing fun stuff like running 62 miles over 15 fells. So, having spent the early part of the

year training hard for an event I had to watch come and go without so much as lacing up a

trainer, I turned my attention to the 33 mile Marlborough Downs Challenge. This was a race

I’d eyed up as something to keep me feeling honest after the Fellsman, and which I now felt

I should be attacking with gusto.

With that in mind, I set off at an eight minute per mile pace with a view to running

the thirty-three miles and 2500ft of climb in under five hours. Shortly after the start and 800

yards of directly uphill running, I began to question this strategy. But as the route leveled

out and my heart found a rate that didn’t involve it trying to escape from my chest, things

became easier. I was running on or above the target pace through Gopher Wood, which was

carpeted with scented wild garlic, blankets of bluebells and several traction-

free bogs, on which my knackered old road trainers functioned to all intents and purposes

like roller-skates. Emerging up and out of the woods, we ran onto the Wandsyke Path

and welcomed the return of friction in the guise of well-grazed grass and enjoyed gently

undulating green views. At this point I was still just in touch with the front pack. On the wide

open stretches I enjoyed watching the running version of a peleton jostling for position, glad

I wasn’t among them and the associated pressure of trying to keep up with people much faster than me. Approaching ten miles, we turned down into Bishops Canning and joined the Kennet and Avon Canal. Still feeling comfortable I ran hard along the three miles of unsympathetic tow path, passed a couple of other competitors and rocked up at the just-under-half-way checkpoint in two hours.

With my ambitions of running the route in under five hours still well intact, I

grabbed a handful of jelly babies and headed out of Devizes towards the tough climb up

onto the Leipzig plantation. I’d been steeling myself for this gradient as I knew it’d sap

energy and time; however, I lost around five minutes on the climb and was immediately

aware that sub five wasn’t going to be as clear cut as I’d have liked. I caught

up time on the Roundway and Wessex Ridgeway, but the subsequent climbs up Morgan’s

Hill and the Cherhill Monument and White Horse took far longer than I had to spare and aware that I wasn’t going to be getting new energy from anywhere soon, I began spending a lot of time looking at my watch and performing dodgy calculations about how fast I now needed to be running where and when.

Courtesy of Alan Markham

As we descended into the remarkable village of Avebury, with slightly more than a

marathon run in under four hours, I had an hour left to run the final six miles which would have been less daunting if I wasn’t aware that half of it was steeply uphill. For the first

three miles on the old Anglo-Saxon Herepath – think 10th-century Wessex civil defence – I

was grinding past the other runners, many of whom were now walking and I managed to

slog it up to the last checkpoint with the beating sun baking the last of the sweat out of my

body. Most of this had formed a thick salty residue across my forehead and the rest was in

my eye and causing great irritation – but with almost all the rest of the race either downhill

or flat, I knew I couldn’t let up and began to push as hard as I could. And this was chiefly a

lesson in the law of diminishing returns: the closer to the finish I was and the harder I tried,

the slower I became. It had all the marks of one of those dreams where you feel you can’t

run, but with none of the possibilities of waking up comfortably in bed in the next five

minutes. Feeling very woozy about half a mile from the finish line, I resignedly watched five hours tick over on my watch and eventually trundled up to it in five

hours and seven minutes, with two lessons learned: one, eat more than a couple of handful of jelly babies, and/or two, train harder if you want to run faster.

I finished in 18th place overall with members of the ‘Hen Harriers’ team I run with –

Ed, John and Tim – coming in 25th , 72nd and 82nd, respectively. This was good training for us all, as in July we’re going to be running 140 miles between the last known locations of

illegally killed Hen Harriers in the north of England. These magnificent birds of prey are on

the edge of extinction in England, chiefly because they are routinely killed by grouse moor

interests. Because of their rarity, the surviving birds are satellite tagged, which

unfortunately doesn’t stop them being trapped, poisoned or shot, but it does allow us to

know where and when they are killed. With brazen regularity this is invariably over or near a

grouse moor. Hence, in July we are going to run across the North of England between the

last known locations of these birds. I’m going to run 140 miles in four days and Ed, Tim and

John are going to relay the route with me. We have lots of other interested fell runners who

are coming to run stretches with us too, so if you are interested in running, supporting or

sponsoring us, please have a look at www.thehenharriers.com or


Meanwhile, I’d like to say thank you to the organisers of the Marlborough Downs

Challenge for organising such a splendid race and well done and thank you to

everybody else who took part for making it such an enjoyable thirty-three-mile experience.

52 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All