Sunday, 16 May 2010

Marlborough Downs Challenge - Race Report

Hi All

To those of you new to my blog, here is my Marlborough Downs Challenge Race Report. While you are here on my blogsite, why not have a quick look around. I tend to 'mutter' on a bit, but if you are into ultra trail running, there may be something of interest to you.

The Marlborough Downs Challenge was the sixth race of the Runfurther UK Ultra Running Series. It is advertised as 33 miles, however, the detailed route description states 32.2 miles, and my Garmin GPS trace shows 32.39 miles. Whatever the distance, it is a great course, with some amazing views, that is if you remember to look up after struggling up the 4 or 5 tough hills.
Click the link to view the course, the elevation, my mile splits, heart rate etc. on the Garmin Connect website:

The race has been a regular in the Vasque/Runfurther series, and as with a few of the series races this year, it was a sell out field with 164 entries. I had run the race last year for the first time, finishing in fifth place in a time of 4 hours 10 minutes. However, last year I felt that I hadn't really performed to my best, so this year I was hoping to run the course substantially faster!

Prior to the race, I spent quite a bit of time looking at the detailed route description, together with the ordnance survey map, and also looking at my GPS race route from last year, displayed on Google Earth. So after extensive 'research' of the course profile, my planned finish time for 2010 was 3:52:30. The race record had been jointly smashed (an improvement of over 12 minutes) by Allen Smalls and Matt Giles in 2009, and stood at 3:53:41. So my planned race schedule was pretty ambitious, but I considered realistic! Well that was what I had convinced myself on paper!

The race started in the grounds of Marlborough College. The college buildings and surroundings are rather impressive, so it was a fitting setting for what promised to be a great race.

If you have read any of my previous blogs you will know that I really enjoy racing, and with this race being one of my target races for the year I was pretty 'hyped up'. I had also been publicising my race philosophy of "Run as fast as you can, while you can" on my blog, so I really had to put it into action!

The horn sounds at exactly 9:00am and probably around 140 runners set off. The course is flat for around 250 metres before a steep climb. As I turn the sharp right hand turn to start the steep climb, I notice that I am already around 50 metres ahead. Obviously, no one else seems to share my start fast philosophy, with everyone else probably thinking, who is that 'fool' ahead, sprinting off so fast!

I find running at the front of the race quite an experience. I seldom look behind, unless by chance on sharp corners/bends in the course. So I am unaware how close behind me the other runners are. Whether they are close or distant doesn't really matter, as I try to run at a hard, fast pace, what I feel I can hold for quite a few miles, knowing that I will eventually slow. Sometimes it works, and I run the entire way on my own. Occasionally it doesn't.

After around 4 -5 minutes of puffing and blowing, I find that my breathing hasn't really settled. My chest is feeling quite tight, and I'm beginning to think maybe I should have done some quick hard stuff in training. I'm beginning to think "Why do I do this? Why do I start so fast?" But then I am reminded why, as I pass through the first check point at 2.2 miles, as I receive the warm greeting and positive energy from the marshals. My ego is satisfied, I am 30 seconds up on schedule, and although a tight chest, I am loving it! (See my previous post on Motivation)

Running through the woods, although I don't look behind, I sense that the runners are not too far behind. Breathing is still a bit uncomfortable, so I decide to ease of the pace a bit, to be ready, assuming I will shortly be caught. So I will be in a state to run with the runner or runners that catch me, rather than not being able to stay with them. As I suspected at the top of the steady climb coming out of the woods at around 5 miles, I am caught by a runner, James Bellward.

We run together side by side, for the next 4 miles, passing through check point 2 at 6.4 miles. I was meant to take on a gel, but with my chest only just returning back to normal, I decide that trying to consume a sickly gel isn't really wise. With the next checkpoint only 2.5 miles further along, I am happy with my decision. There is a steep climb shortly after CP2. James tests me out a wee bit by attacking the hill quite hard. I hope that it is just an over enthusiastic spurt, I allow him to move a few metres ahead. Thankfully he then eases off after the climb and we continue running together side by side. No chatting apart from the occasional, "You think it's this way, thanks for holding the gate, etc."

As we leave checkpoint 3, where the 20 mile event leaves the 33 mile course, we both head off on the 20 mile route. The marshals quickly call out, and as we turn to come back to the 33 mile course, I get a real shock, two runners are right there at the drink station and a third runner isn't too far back either.

The course continues along the high ground following an old ancient road called the Wansdyke. There are some amazing views in all directions. Looking ahead and to the right, the monument, which we pass at the 23 mile mark is visible on top of a pretty big looking hill. It reminds me, that we still have a long way to go, and also of the major climbs in the second half of the course.

There is now a group of four, having been joined by Allen Smalls, last year's winner and course record holder, and Mark Cooper. Werun pretty quietly together, apart from the occasional checking of direction. The course has the occasional direction arrow during the first few miles, especially within the woods, but it is made quite clear withinthe course information that the race relies on self navigation. I prefer it this way as it adds an extra skill to the event, as you have to take on the added responsibility of knowing the course.

We continue running as a tight group with Allen and myself tending to be the main leaders. We have a nice descent as we drop down towards the canal. As we cross the canal bridge onto the canal path, I decide to have a bit of a break from leading and allow Mark to go to the front. The canal path is reasonable narrow so we run in single file. Mark leading, I am on his shoulder and Allen and James behind me. We follow the canal for exactly 3 miles. Mark is setting a good pace, not too hard, probably just a fraction slower than I would have set if I was leading. The good thing is that I'm having a break from leading, so I just relax stay on his shoulder, no need to check whether I am running too fast, too slow. Just simply running, enjoying the experience, and keeping an eye out for dog poo!

After about a mile (GPS lap time shows 6:42), I sense that Mark is a bit fed up with leading. He slightly slows down, I simply slow down as well. I am enjoying running relaxed on his shoulder. He then picks up the pace, quicker than before, to try and stretch us out. The next mile passes in 6:29, it feels right on the limit of comfortable, but not quite! He then slows the pace down again, and then slows a little bit more, encouraging us to overtake him. We all stay behind him in single file. I consider maybe I should relieve him from the front, but we then turn off from the canal to immediately reach check point 4. The bunch stretches out a bit as different people take longer to quench their thirst, as it is a warm sunny day, pleasant, without being too hot. Shortly after the checkpoint the group reforms.

The path now heads north out of Divizes, as we reach the first of the major big climbs on the way back to Marlborough. Immediately Allen Smalls who has been having an enjoyable ride along the canal path at the back of the group, attacks hard up the hill. James manages to stay with him, but Mark and myself drift off. I am not overly worried, as it is quite clear that they have really upped the intensity. No doubt, well rather hopefully, they will ease off back to a comfortable pace that I can run at.

At the top of the steep climb, as we pass through a small plantation, Allen and James are running together, around 100metres ahead of Mark, with me trailing around 50 metres behind Mark. Opps! They don't seem to be easing off, decision time??? As we have a slight descent down to the next checkpoint at 18.6 miles, I take chase. I run the 18th mile in 6:16, passing Mark, who appears to decide to play it safe, with it being his first ever ultra, and lets us speed off into the distance. Mark manages to run on well to finish in fourth place.

As we start the next steep climb, shortly after the checkpoint, I have nearly rejoined Allen and James. This section of the course I have inspected thoroughly on google earth as I went off course last year at this point. As we pass through a gateway, there is no clear path to follow and it is not possible to see the next gateway as we have to crest the brow of the hill. Allen and James veer slightly off to the left. I try to visualise the course from the maps/google earth, I think we should veer slightly to the right. Do I follow the leaders, or take the gamble to gain some ground, but then maybe could lose some more. I decide to follow my instinct, and head to the right. As we crest the brow of the hill, I am relieved that I am heading in an exact straight line for the next gate. I reach the gate slightly ahead of the leaders, and am so happy with myself that without realising it, I have increased the pace, and now Allen and James appear to be struggling!

Right, I immediately think, here is my chance to increase my lead. So I blast it down the hill over a few fences, keep the pace on for a bit longer as the course flattens out, and hope that the small gap I establish of around 70metres is enough to dispirit them. Checkpoint 6 at 21.1 shortly arrives where I briefly stop for my third gel of the day, and two full cups of water, as it is continues to get warmer. As I depart the checkpoint James departs with me, and I see that Allen isn't too far back.

James and I start the long climb up to the monument running side by side. It is quite a tough climb. James seems happy to let me set the pace. I slightly ease of the pace, he also eases of the pace. Great I think, he is finally weakening. I try to re-pick up the pace, but not with much success. I am also weakening! Allen joins us, and slowly moves past us. I manage to stay with Allen, James also tries, but he starts to struggle, then all of a sudden he is gone! Allen and I pass the monument, then pass the white chalk horse, and descend together down the other side. With nine miles to go, it is now down to the two off us. For James, like Mark, this also being his first ultra race, he really struggles over the last nine miles and loses over 40 minutes to finish in eleventh place. Welcome to the joy of ultra running James!

I am beginning to now feel a 'wee bit' tired, so I let Allen lead. The 25th mile passes in 6:38 as we are met by the leading runners in the 20 mile event as their course rejoins with ours. (They started at 10:30 am). Not only am I beginning to tire, but my right hamstring is beginning to 'tweak'. On occasions this year it has tended to get tight, so Luke the physio at the excellent sports injury clinic "Sportswise", has been using me as a pin cushion during the year, as he uses acupuncture to help relieve the tension.

Decision time again? Do I dig deep and try to stay with Allen, or do I play it safe and ease off briefly and hope the hamstring relaxes. The brain at times is quite amazing, the moment it has an opportunity to get me to slow down, it takes advantage of the situation. The hamstring has never really got too bad, but all of a sudden the brain is telling me; "That I must slow down. If I don't it will seize up, and I will have to walk the last 6 miles to the finish." Thereby destroying any hope off earning good points for the Runfurther series. "Let Allen run away, he will only gain at most a minute, you will still get loads of series points. Don't take the gamble, don't blow it now. You can't beat him, he's the record holder remember!"

I have all of these thoughts going through my head. Running ultras isn't usually this brain demanding. However, this is the first time I have ever been in this situation, running with another runner at the front of the race, struggling to stay with him with a few miles to go. For all of the six ultra races I have won over the last two years, I have always been in total control, able to set my own pace. Now I am really being tested. What do I do?

I give in! The 'slow down part of my brain', convinces me that this is the wise thing to do. So I let Allen run away from me. Maybe the phrase "let him run away from me" is a bit exaggerated. I probably didn't have a choice. But at that moment in time, that's what it felt like, as if I had decided the race was over!

As I continue running through Avesbury, I get another shock, Paul Fernandez comes running past me. I had forgotten about the other 140 runners. Opps, there wasn't only two of us racing. Allen is probably only around 100 - 150 metres ahead. Paul looks determined and is in the process of chasing him down. Me, I have lost my determination and I simply watch as he runs past.

I start the long climb up to where the course crosses the Ridgeway at 28 miles and then after a brief descent and a further climb reach the final checkpoint at 29 miles. I take my final gel of the day, followed by two cups of water and head gently downhill towards the finish. After running pretty slowly for the last 3 miles, both Allen and Paul are quite a way in the distance. I then remind myself that I didn't come to the Marlborough Downs Challenge to jog. I came to race! So I snap myself back into action, knowing that I have no chance of catching the two in front, but at least I can still run hard to the finish. So the intensity increases substantially from around 157ish bpm for the last few miles, back up to around 163bpm. I run the last three miles strongly in 6:45, 6:44 and 6:51. These three miles were slightly downhill so the quick mile rates are a bit assisted.

I cross the line in 3:55:04, finishing in 3rd place. Allen is standing there very relaxed, looks like he has been there a while. He maintained his lead and has set a new course record of 3:51:33. Paul looks like he has run 33 miles, and after making a strong charge towards the end, has to settle for second place in a time of 3:53:27.

So I finish the Marlborough Downs Challenge with mixed emotions. Initially I am really disappointed with myself, for 'wimping out' for three miles, from the 26 to the 29 mile mark! But then, I am pleased for the way I ran the last three miles hard and strong. I look at my time. only two and a half minutes slower that my very ambitious planned course record time. It has taken two exceptionally good ultra runners to beat me, both breaking the previous course record. So within a few minutes of finishing, the more upbeat I get, the more positive I feel about my race performance.

I really enjoy the post race environment within Marlborough Leisure Centre. As part of the entry fee, we receive an absolutely excellent meal, lasagna, salmon, salad etc. All finishers also receive a top quality crafted mug, and there are quality prizes for the top finishers as well as spot prizes. There is a really positive energy within the hall, as everybody is chatting and sharing their experiences of the 33 mile course or the 20 mile course.

Well, to those of you that have persevered and managed to reach the the end of my race report, you obviously have some endurance qualities. Apologies for the race reports length, but as I started recalling the race, the memories of my thoughts during different parts of the race became stronger. Hopefully you have found my perspective to ultra running, being up near the front, interesting.

I would just like to finish, by thanking everyone involved for putting on such a great event: the organisers, the marshals, the cooks, Marlborough College, and Marlborough Leisure Centre. I for one will be back next year for the Marlborough Downs Challenge, as I continue to challenge myself both physically and mentally around the course! Hope to see you all there.

May you all enjoy the challenges of ultra trail running,

Photographed after the race with training partner Kev (121) who finished in 6 hours 48 minutes after going 'slightly off course' and running around 38 miles!


  1. Thanks Stuart. I enjoyed reading that detailed report. A gripping race tale from the top of the field. And you put your own race philosophy into practise again.

    But after all the musings about race pace and strategy would it be a possibility that a rather modereate start could have worked out better for you?

    Anyway, quite a good result (a very good result) and good points for the series.

  2. The Marlborough is one of my favourite races - really runnable, nice undulating scenery and well organised. Well done and good report too!