Sunday 29 May 2022

Bedfordshire: Greensand Country Ultra race recap

Last summer I was casting around for a race in Bedfordshire and I came across a really fun sounding race called Bingo Race.  What happens is: Your running number is a 3 number bingo card. Each runner has their own bag containing bingo balls. You run a loop of 2 miles, then pick a number out of the bag. If it's on your card, you cross it off and do another loop. When you've crossed off all your numbers, you're done. Obviously this might take a while.

Unfortunately at the time I was training for A100, my first ever hundred mile race.  I sent a begging message to my coach:

Alice: I really want to enter Bingo Race on 12/9. I’ll take it easy I promise! It’s 5 weeks before A100 and it may/probably does involve 10 hours of running on a flattish course. Please let me <praying emoji>

Coach: Hey Alice, I have a few questions for you - Do you think this race is going to add to your A100 training? How many hours on your feet is that going to be?  what sort of impact is that going to have on your energy levels going into the A100?

Reluctantly, I agreed that this was probably not ideal, even though it sounded FUN.
One of the other runners being coached by my coach had recently run the Greensand Country Ultra and recommended it.  It was nearly a year away but fit in with my plans so I entered.  That year has rolled on by and here we are...

A week or two before the race, the race director sent an incredibly detailed email with all the instructions including the GPX in multiple formats (other races could learn from this!) and the race day briefing video.  I watched the video and everything seemed familiar.  The Race Director.  The signs they use.  The every-last-detail organisation.  I was sure I'd done one of their races before.  Eventually I realised it was Chiltern Ridge Ultra - my first post-Covid marathon!  I remember the torrential rain well!

I also remembered it was impeccably well signposted, which bodes well for this race.  The weather forecast was good and the race was a mix of trail and tarmac, but the RD said in the pre-race video that although you could get away with road shoes, he'd still recommend wearing trail shoes.  I packed my trusty Saucony Peregrines and set off bright and early for Bedfordshire.   On arrival, predictably it was super-organised.  They had even proper printed maps of the route they were giving out to everyone!
The race was right next to an airfield, which just so happened to be where Ben keeps his plane.  He has a private pilot's licence and a share in a lovely old Cessna so we'd planned for him to (hopefully) fly over me during the race.  When I arrived it was pretty windy - fingers crossed it would be OK for flying later.  The wind was also making it feel pretty cold - despite the sunshine I wished I'd brought gloves.
I collected my number - it was a 50k so being number 50 was kind of cool - and had time for a really nice cup of coffee before the race started.
The race began with a short loop around Shuttleworth before heading out into the Bedfordshire countryside.  The first section was all on grass and I remember being glad I was wearing trail shoes.
As with Chiltern Ridge, there was a race photographer taking (free!) photos - got to love that.  Here's one of me near the beginning in the woods:
The wooded section didn't last long and we were soon out into farmland.  I was settling into a comfortable pace by now and got chatting to the guy in front, who turned out to be called James.  This was only his second ultra and he was wearing white cotton socks.  I'm wary of offering unsolicited advice to runners, but cotton socks are a disaster area so I went out on a limb and gently suggested he invest in some proper running socks.  A decent pair are almost as effective as a new pair of trainers in terms of comfort and will help prevent blisters and moisture damage.  Well worth a tenner in my opinion.
Luckily, James took it well (!) and we ran together for a few miles after that.  He was local and lived not far from where we were running.  He pointed out Cardington Hangars, which he told me was where they used to build airships which he used to see all the time when he was a kid in Bedford.  I grew up in Milton Keynes and also remember airships being quite common - nowadays I only see them in Fortnite!
We chatted about races, and running generally - he has 3 young kids so unsurprisingly finds it more difficult to get all the training in.  I told him about Bingo race and it turned out he actually knows the RD of that race (James Adams) - I follow him on Strava so knew he was from Bedfordshire too and have read his book - small world!  Anyway it turns out that it is on again this year, in October.  James told me he was already signed up.  I was delighted at this news and promised I would sign up when I got home - James, if you're reading this, I'm in!  It seems to have been shortened to a 6 hour race this year but that's probably a good thing :) 

We continued through really lovely countryside:
After a few miles I lost James, but stopped to take this picture of Cardington (the big green warehouse in the middle of the picture).  There were a lot of beautiful cornfields in this race.
At 11k, I finally felt warm enough to take my jacket off.  The first aid station was at 15k - delightfully it had a huge selection of really nice snacks including Tribe bars, oranges and bananas and also proper indoor toilets.  I took advantage of these and when I came out I saw James's wife and children had come to cheer him on at the checkpoint - awww!
This was taken just after the checkpoint.  The field to the left was scattered with poppies and the path was quite narrow and overgrown.  Around this point, I turned on my Glympse so that Ben could see where I was in the hope he might spot me from the plane.
More fields followed.  The paths were very, very hard as it hadn't rained for weeks and I was starting to get a bit of pain in my calves - unusual for me so early in a race.  My trail shoes don't have much padding and the trails were so hard they were almost like road.  Hmm.
I came to a field which looked like crops, but they definitely weren't potatoes.  I ran through, peering at them, annoyed that I couldn't identify them.  I sent the first picture to my mum whilst running, asking if she knew.
The font of all knowledge very quickly replied, resolving my annoyance!


I passed the official photographer hiding in a bush.  He must've taken this picture after I passed - sometimes it feels a bit like the paparazzi!  Nevertheless I love this shot.  Somehow he's managed to make me look quite elegant and dramatic, neither of which I was feeling at the time!

I turned a corner and could see a purple field in the distance.  I wasn't sure what it was, but could see other runners in the distance so knew I would be getting closer shortly.
Definitely purple:
When I got close enough, I could see they were just small purple flowers.  Weirdly they didn't look big or purple enough to have such a big effect from a distance.
The next section was on a tarmac path and by now my legs were really starting to hurt.  I was quite grumpy about it and not really looking forward to another 25k of this.  You can see three men on the left of this picture - I leapfrogged them for much of the rest of the race.

I think somewhere after this was the 30k aid station (the aid stations were at 15, 30 and 40km, which happen to match the scoring in tennis and made it very easy for me to remember where they were!)  I remember moaning to the people there about being advised to wear trail shoes.  

Shortly afterwards I was running on some extremely unpleasant gravel and chatting to a chap named Guy.  He had some Kendal Mint Cake flavoured gels - I'd never even heard of them but how exciting that they exist!  I took a (not very good) photo so I could find them on the internet later:

An example of the signage, which was utterly fantastic again.  An arrow sign points the right way, backed up with the orange tape, with a 'Wrong Way' sign in the distance for the avoidance of doubt.

Shortly after this I saw Ben's plane fly overhead!  Unfortunately I only saw it when it had already passed, so it was too late for me to do anything except wave my arms wildly and take a photo.  I looked up on Glympse about 30 seconds later and he was already far away - planes are a lot faster than runners, haha.


There were some runners just behind me who saw me leaping about and they caught up with me as I stood trying to get my breath back.  I explained, "That's my boyfriend up there in that plane!" and one of them said, "Well he could have made an effort!" 

The race continued.  There were a few short sections on road, which I was bitter about.  I took more paracetamol, playing hard and fast with the maximum dose limit.  I texted Ben to let him know, just in case something bad happened (spoiler: it didn't).

Here's the three lads again.  As you can see this is 'trail' but it may as well have been concrete for all the softness and bounce I was getting off it.

Shortly after this I started running with a girl whose name I didn't catch.  It was her first ultra - she was supposed to be running Race to the Castle but it had been cancelled so she was doing this instead.  She seemed to be doing fine to me but nevertheless seemed worried about finishing.  We had a nice chat and she asked me casually what the furthest distance I'd ever run was.  When I said '100 miles' she was awestruck.  Shortly afterwards we arrived at the aid station and she told the people there - including the RD! -  how inspirational I was!  I was quite embarrassed but it was also a huge compliment.  I still find it surprising that people would be inspired by me - I genuinely think anyone could do what I do.  (With the caveat that they have to actually WANT to). 

After the aid station it was only 10k til the end, which seemed manageable.

At one point I saw a pedestrian taking a photo of one of the ribbons.  I stopped and asked if everything was alright and reassured him that the race organisers would be taking down all the ribbons once the race was over.  It piqued my interest though so a bit further on I stopped to take a picture myself:

I heard my watch beep and looked down to find a text from Ben: "Flying over you within 5 mins".  I replied, "DON'T TEXT AND FLY!!!" and untied my coat so I could leap up and down and wave it around.  This time I saw him coming and was ready, flinging my coat in the air and waving frantically.
A girl caught me up and asked, "Are you OK? I wasn't sure if you knew someone, I thought you might be signalling for help!?"  I explained.  She thought it was pretty cool.  I got my phone out and looked at the track:
Ben would be landing shortly and I still had a little way to go.  I turned down the road we normally cycle down when we're going to the airfield and then ran through some fields and around the bottom of the runway.  Back through the forest and into Shuttleworth proper.  Not far now.

On the home straight. I could see the big house on the left and I knew the finish was just through the trees:
I crossed the line and collected my medal and took a photo.  Then I drank some water and sat down on the grass and took my shoes and socks off.  I couldn't see any blisters but they really hurt.

A few minutes later Ben appeared.  He asked if I wanted anything - sadly the unbelievably fabulous pizza van they had at Chiltern Ridge Ultra had been replaced with a Pancakes and Waffles van.  Now I love pancakes and waffles as much as the next person but after nearly 6 hours of eating sugar it was the last thing I wanted.  I couldn't face coffee or hot chocolate either, so in the end we just walked back to the car and went home.


Thanks Bedfordshire.  See you in October for BINGO!

Saturday 7 May 2022

Herefordshire: Wye Valley Trail Running Challenge race recap

Herefordshire has been one of the most difficult counties for me to achieve.  Initially I struggled to find any races here, even ultras.  Eventually I found an ultra that was 99% in Worcestershire but just briefly crossed the border.  I decided that was close enough and signed up, but then it was cancelled twice due to Covid, then the route was changed last minute.  Frustrated, I searched for another race that fit my schedule and found the inaugural Wye Valley Trail marathon, which was both properly in Herefordshire and only a week later. 

As Ben's daughters live nearby, we decided to make this into a mini holiday.  We picked them up on Friday evening and drove to where we were staying - a cabin in the Herefordshire countryside - and spent a lovely evening exploring the woods, sitting round the fire pit and having a BBQ.  The next morning was a glorious day and Ben and I set off bright and early to the race. 

I had another crap day at work on Friday (hmm... are you starting to notice a theme in these race reports?) and have also been getting a bit fed up of running in London which just doesn't have what I call 'real' countryside.  As we drove to the race, I could already see that today was going to be quite something.  Herefordshire is STUNNING.  Even though I was a bit grouchy, the portents were good.

The race had a lengthy kit list and the pre-race email said, "The mandatory kit lists will be applicable whatever the weather. Please respect that the kit lists are put together in collaboration with rescue services and are not up for debate".  Generally speaking I don't have a problem with this.  If you don't like the kit list, don't enter the race - it's the race director's prerogative to make you carry whatever they think is appropriate.  If you don't like it, tough.  That said, having to carry a base layer, taped seam waterproof trousers and jacket, a hat, gloves and head torch on a day like today IS quite annoying.

We arrived at the car park and were promptly informed by a helpful marshall that the race director had decided to remove ALL of the above items from the kit list.  I removed nearly a kilo of weight from my vest with total delight.  I've done races where the RD stubbornly insists on you carrying the kit whatever the weather and hats off to this guy for doing the right thing.  I met many runners during the day who were grateful for this decision!  I felt even more optimistic about the race now and headed off in search of registration.  It was slightly tricky to find but once I got there, the volunteers were efficient, there were clean loos and a short but useful race briefing. 

Ben was there to wave me off and take this picture - I look happy because I was happy!  Afterwards he went back to hang out with his daughters with the plan that all three of them would meet me at the finish.
The start of the race was quite slow because the paths were narrow and there were a few gates and twists and turns that meant we could only progress in single file.  I wasn't fussed in the slightest - as usual I felt a bit under-trained and wasn't aiming to be speedy in any way.  We went past some huge greenhouses which pretended were growing Hereford strawberries (I have no idea if that's actually true).

After a short road section the course opened out into glorious countryside.


There was even an official photographer taking (free!) pictures:

I could feel myself exhaling.  All the stress and worries of work, getting here, moving house and everything else just fell away as I got into a running rhythm.  The birds were singing, the sun was shining, the countryside was beautiful and already in the first few kilometres incredibly varied, as you can see from the pictures.  It was, quite literally, everything that I love about running.  I tried to remember the last time I'd had such a good time at a race and couldn't.  It was the same feeling I sometimes get when I do multi-day trails on my own.  It's a mixture of total freedom and immersion in nature and enjoyment of my own physicality and gratitude that I have the capability of getting this much pleasure from something so simple as running.  It's what makes it all worthwhile.  It's quite difficult to explain it in words.

Somewhere along here, I spotted a girl just ahead of me waving.  I looked to see who she was waving at but could only see a field of sheep.  I had to stop behind her to pass through a gate and asked, "Were you waving at the sheep?" and she said, "Yeah" and we both laughed.  We got chatting after that.  Her name was Maddy and she was from Bristol.  She told me she was here to get a suntan and eat a lot of cake, making her my kind of companion.  After a few minutes, she said, "I'll let you get on," which is runner's code for 'you're going too fast for me'.  I said, "Oh no, I'm not in a hurry, I'll slow down!" and we stayed together, chatting away about races.  She told me she had entered this race as training for a 40 miler in a few weeks.  Today was meant to be 29 miles but after adjustments to the route it was only 26.8 miles now.

We arrived at the first aid station (9km) and I had to pop to the loo (luckily minimal GI problems this race) but figured I'd catch her up later on.

After the aid station, the route continued to be absolutely stunning.  It was so lovely I didn't even want to have music on and I couldn't stop taking pictures.  It was getting warm by now but there was lots of shade keeping me comfortable.

I met a guy from Devon who I ran with for a few miles, including the section where the race went through Monmouth.  Although it did go past a Lidl at one point, there were barely any road sections on this race.  I didn't catch the guy's name but he'd run quite a few marathons with Trail Events Co who organised this race, mainly in Wales.  I would definitely run their events again in future - the signage was frequent, the checkpoints were well stocked and the organisation was good.  

There was one point just before this funky-looking bridge where the route did a sort of U turn and I would have missed it if it wasn't for some random passers by shouting and waving that I was going the wrong way.  They were sat on a picnic bench on the side of the trail and I got the impression they'd done that quite a few times already!

I had initially thought I might do the first half in about 2 hours, but it took me nearly 2 and half.  I stopped a lot of times and was really focusing on enjoying the moment, rather than rushing through it.  The trail was also quite technical in places - I'd already collected a few minor war wounds (bramble scratches and stinging nettle stings) due to the narrow paths - totally worth it though!

I took a lot of photos but you can see why.  Just look at it!  By this point I was already starting to think this might be the most beautiful of all the counties so far.  I was incredibly glad I'd chosen a race that is actually IN Herefordshire as what a waste it would've been to have missed this:

The next aid station suddenly appeared at 23k and lo and behold there was Maddy!  It had taken me a long time to catch up but got there in the end.  I stood around for a while eating cake and chatting to her and the tail runners from the ultra, one of whom was doing the Cotswold Way Century in a few weeks (definitely one of my bucket list races).   They told us about the last lady in the ultra who is 68 years old and only took up running 4 years ago.  Sadly (because the routes diverged) I never managed to catch up to her, but what an amazing story!  I really, really hope she finished but the Cotswold Century guy said he would stay with her until she finished even if she missed the cutoff.  Awww.  Runners are so lovely.

**Update**: just checked and she did, in 11 hours 13 mins, RESPECT to her.  What an achievement.

 I got my poles out at the aid station as I knew the next section was going to be the hilly bit.  Luckily I'd had room to stash them in my pack since removing all the extra kit!  It turned out there was quite a bit more flat to go but I wasn't complaining as it was GORGEOUS:


Loads of bluebells and it was getting pretty warm by now so I was grateful for the shade in the woods.  Soon enough the hills arrived and they were great.  I was ready for a bit of a walking break and the poles were amazing - it really didn't feel that difficult.  I like hills that are steep enough to feel like a hill without being too brutal (Wiltshire/Surrey level of steepness is a bit too much) and these were just right.  An excuse to walk and eat and chat without feeling like you're going to die.

Somewhere between aid station 2 and 3, Maddy caught up with me and we ran together for a bit, stopping frequently to take photos, before losing each other again.  I asked her about her upper body strength - she looked much too well toned to be 'just' a runner - and we had a long and interesting chat as she also does a lot of weights in the gym.  She loves both and switches between them - I said I just don't find any other activities as enjoyable as running - so then we talked about cycling, and swimming, and the conversation just flowed.  Miles ticked by.

Just before the third checkpoint, the path suddenly petered out into a pretty normal housing estate.  It was weird to suddenly be somewhere quite urban after the gloriousness of the paths!

The aid station was manned by Explorer Scouts, who were really friendly and helpful and well organised.  One runner came in asking for ice as she'd tripped over and they managed to find her a cold pack pretty quickly and efficiently.  Maddy was there and announced that we were all on the home straight now, a couple of other runners looked slightly dubious but she was all smiles and her positivity was infectious.

At one point I saw these and had to stop and take a photo - this is a flower called Celandine.  I'm currently doing a 12 month challenge with Camino Ultra to run 12 different routes in London and the May one (which I did last weekend) is called Celandine after this flower.  I didn't see any on the Celandine route - despite looking - so was made up to spot them out here.

Yet more beautiful countryside:

A few miles from the end, I met up with Maddy again and we ran the last few miles together.  We chatted so much that we took a couple of wrong turns - luckily my GPS put us right and only a few people followed us - oops.  Maddy is one of those relentlessly positive people who views getting lost as bonus miles. She said, "I wanted to do 29 miles today anyway!" which is a great way to look at it.


She also told me that there was a really cool bridge coming up near the end and she wasn't wrong!  Only 6 people are allowed on it at a time and it's like one of those rickety bridges you get in children's play parks, except it crosses a pretty big river. 

I recalled the race director advising us against running across it during the briefing - now I can see why!

It wasn't much further to the finish line, and Maddy and I crossed together.  Ben and his daughters were there waiting, which was lovely.  


I didn't take any more pictures after that but here's the medal - not bad for a wooden one! - and a pic of the elevation which was pretty much all in the second half.  Poles were great and definitely helpful - and it was good to have the practice pre-Cornwall too. 

Overall this was a thoroughly enjoyable race which I can highly recommend.  It doesn't get much better than this!