On Saturday evening, after a rest day of yoga, brunch, a little bit of work and my usual pre-race dinner, I set my alarm for 4am. No, I wasn’t jetting off on holiday to a faraway island I was traveling to East Sussex for the Weald Challenge, a 50(ish)km Trail race with an 8am start. On a Sunday.
Car sharing is a great thing and kudos to racelifts.org for letting runners buddy up to get them to races that aren’t accessible by public transport. A great idea but one that didn’t quite get off the ground and help much for ultra runners in London wanting to race the Weald Challenge. My only option was to travel across to the other side of London, North Greenwich on a night bus and then tube, for 6am to be picked up by David and driven to the start an hour and a half away. Not ideal race preparation but sometimes you’ve got to work with what you have (or haven’t, in this case a car!) and see how it pans out.
So with a little planning and a sprinkle of luck, we arrived in the little village of Muddles Green, Chiddingly, to register in the primary school, listen to the race brief and walk together to the start line down the country lane for 8am.
The Weald Challenge trail races – a 50km ultra and half marathon – follow two way-marked trails, the Weald Way and the Vanguard Way and take in the beautiful, rolling countryside of East Sussex on route. In the ultra distance we were promised 85% of the course off-road, so just over 4 miles of the route was on quiet country roads between the green fields, hills and ancient woodlands. The route also takes the runners up to the magnificent Ashdown Forest – home of Winnie the Pooh and friends – one of my favourite discoveries of one of my many escapes from London on a running adventure last year.
At 8am sharp, over 200 ultra runners – easily picked out of a crowd by their choice of trail shoe or hydration vest/pack by un-nameable but very well known sports brands! – set off into the slightly misty and cool unknown, out of civilisation and began their own adventure. The first 7 miles was well marked as it had been recce-d by the organisers for the half marathon that started an hour later. As well as the WW trail markers there were race signs and familiar red and white striped taped attached to tree branches and kissing gates until we got to the first aid station. After 7 miles, where the half marathon route took a different loop, we were somewhat on our own with directions, relying solely on the Weald or Vanguard Way markers on wooden posts placed sporadically along the trail. It was like this for 18 miles so you can imagine the scope to become completely lost and add many miles to the already long distance race!
Luckily, apart from a slight detour through some questionable terrain – dense, prickly gorse bushes and high, straggly stinging nettles – at the turning point where the Weald Way ends and the Vanguard Way begins, I stuck close to the actual race route. The field of runners spread out very quickly so apart from the odd chat at aid stations with marshals and runners about the same pace, it felt as if the trail was yours. Yours to own.
Long races now seem to become a little bit of a blur and so I struggle to describe any particular part of the route or a favourite section, but what I do remember loving was the variation in landscape we covered. The unknown for me and being able to discover new parts of countryside I couldn’t dream of seeing in the city is what drives me to enter these races and run them, not to race, but to explore.
Gnarly but beautiful, tree knot-filled woodland trails, just as you imagine in A.A Milne’s stories with Piglet and Tigger hiding in the trees, fields of unripe barley crops up to waist-height, which felt itchy on bare legs, and paths of bone-dry white sands, like the South Downs Way trails I’ve run on in the past. All mixed up and there for us to explore.
I didn’t know it until now but my strength in these races definitely lies in the latter stages, 7-10km from the finish as others who started stronger are maybe fading, is where I seem to finally find my rhythm and some sort of second wind to pick up the pace and places, overtaking many who had past me earlier. A month ago I ran the Three Forts Challenge in 4h 20-something so I was hoping with the added 4 miles and slightly tougher elevation profile I might be able to aim for about 5 hours. In reality, with the heat of the day and overstaying my welcome at a few too many of the aid stations to take on water (and watermelon!) I finished in 5h 26 and took 7th lady, and I’m happy with that.
A great day out. New trails discovered. Lessons learnt. A passion fuelled.