We were on the lookout for coffee. Just a little boost to start the day, to get Jo ready for the first few kms of the run. I can’t handle that level of caffeine so had fuelled on tea and cold rice pudding – my personal pre-race ritual. This was to be the first event for me for over 6 months, and my first proper venture into ultra-running. It was Jo’s suggestion, just a 50k jaunt across the North Downs – her home turf, with a vineyard finish – what’s not to love? I’d been tempted to ‘go long’ for a while, and after squaring it with my coach and physio, signed up without a second thought – much to Jo’s amusement as she’d not fully committed yet!
The drive to the start was spectacular. A crisp, cool morning, with the sunshine gradually burning through the mist. Denbies was quiet, Freedom Racing had staggered the start to allow for distancing, requesting runners to self-seed based on expected pace – slow, then fast, then medium (the undertone was to pick the appropriate time and not be an a-hole, picking out ‘a-holes’ that had clearly set off too early became a great distraction for us). We registered, pinned our numbers to our shirts, admired ‘serious’ ultra-kit, queued for the portaloos, and revelled in the chance to race again – a sliver of normality, albeit with face masks and hand sanitiser. And finally found some coffee – saved by Jo’s friend Gemma.
I’d supported my cousin Jo in her 2019 London marathon campaign, and she had cheered me through the outlaw tri later that year (the one where the bike leg was cancelled due to flash flooding and the run course was a quagmire). She had declared she’d never do another marathon (!!!), but within weeks of finishing had been encouraged to hit the trails, with a sociable group of runners (when not running the trails with her dogs, Jo’s a Consultant Anaesthetist, which must have been a pretty exhausting effort this year, #thanksNHS #WomeninSTEMM).
I’ve done a few marathons over the years, including as the final leg of ironmans, but not much on the trails, and since moving to Cambridge everything has been pretty flat (and short). We’d agreed to take it gently, to treat it as a nice day out, or ‘rolling picnic’. This suited me just fine, and made for a much more relaxed event, with opportunity to enjoy the journey. I was intrigued to see how my legs would respond to the distance. The course started with a gentle climb up onto the downs – a bumpy 40k out and back, and a 10k lap of honour.
As we headed out to the 20k turning point we got into a nice rhythm, took our time on the ascents, and progressed steadily. The aid stations were set up as check points, requiring us to fish out our masks and keep our distance, with volunteers filling our bottles and handing us food, so this was taken at a leisurely pace, as we tucked into delicious homemade flapjack. We reached the turning point still feeling good and made our way back towards the vineyard. Jo’s husband and kids met us at checkpoint three for a quick cheer (the kids were a bit bemused they weren’t allowed to help themselves to the treats intended to sustain runners).
The terrain was dry and firm, although pretty uneven in places, including a gruelling sandy stretch, and some cheeky uphills. Once we’d made it back towards Denbies (with a really fun downhill that allowed me to stretch my legs out a bit) ticking through the 40k mark in the process, we passed through the final check point and headed out for a hilly lap of the woods. This is the bit of a race I always love, where the end is in sight, there’s no doubt you’ll finish, and you can just enjoy the final few kms. In this case made even better by the legs still feeling strong. A final downhill stretch on tarmac, then one last ascent, before a narrow path took us back into the vineyard, and towards the finishing line.
It was great running with Jo, and Gemma (@thescenicrunner) who was recovering from a 50 miler two weeks’ before and preparing for another one in 3 weeks’ time. And seeing some of their running group out and about along the route. It was liberating to ignore the data, and just focus on the path and the surroundings, distracting ourselves with stories about other miles (like reminiscing about trail running through Sweden, or how we’d got into running in the first place). The views were epic, the support was fantastic, and the finish line arrived faster than expected, still with smiles on our faces, with Jo’s family to cheer us across the line. It turns out 50k makes celebratory pizza and fizz (only appropriate after a day in the vineyard) taste amazing.
The run contributed 50k to our #uk2antarctica challenge, running with brilliant women, and reminded me of the purpose behind this leadership programme – nothing like 50k across rolling hills in the sunshine to contemplate how we must make sure we protect our planet for generations to come. It was another reminder that we are #strongertogether. My only concern now is that having made it through unscathed, and enjoyed myself so much, I am obviously looking up other longer, hillier events… how about it Jo – what’s next? Promise I’ll bring the coffee.. 😉
The race: North Downs Ridge 50k Trail Ultra
The distance: 49.6km [although my watch clocked 50.7]
Distance covered by UK #TeamHB6 by the end of the race: 636.10km (the equivalent of Aberdeen to Newport, Wales)