Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Testway 40 Ultra - DANGER Quicksand

6th April 2019
Andover Trail Events
Location Andover
Weather/Conditions Overcast

This was a bonus race.  I had looked the race a few times but in 2019 it was not affordable, even if it did fit in well to the training program for my 100-mile race.  On a 26 mile training run from Bristol to Bradford-on-Avon, we were joined by Lucy Payne, who had worked with Andover Trail Events and was running the Testway 40 for the first time.  We chatted about the race and the fact it looks great and would fit in well with my training, but left it at that.  A few days later someone posted on Facebook that he and his friend couldn't run the race due to injury and were donating their places.  Lucy contacted me and I swept up the two places.

We spoke with Lucy, who was being crewed by her husband and she invited us to share their car for the race. On the day of the race, we arrived early at Lucy's, met her husband James and were introduced to the mad hound that is Aela.  The drive to the start was a little longer than we thought and arrived in just enough time to grab race numbers, use the loo and watch the 50-mile runners line up. The 50-mile race does a 10-mile loop before joining the course we would be taking.
Race start at Likenholt, near Andover.

As the tail end runners of the 50-mile race disappeared from view the 40-mile runners lined up on the start line and the usual start-line banter began.  On most road races the runners tend to go into a self meditative state, blanking out those around them and trying to concentrate on the race plan and ensuring the start goes to perfection.  On an ultra, you tend to take the piss out of each other and the race plan is to finish.  The top 5/10% will be in their "zone" but the rest are thinking about what they are going to eat at the end of the race.

We were off, out of the starting arch, turn left and the left again, turn straight up the first hill, wonderful.  The first mile of an ultra is normally the time I take to settle my breathing from Darth Vader mode to a "let's get this done" mode - no such luck.  The route is a mix of terrain and heads south-east towards Hurstbourne Tarrant at 5 miles before climbing up into Doles Copse, the largest climb of the day at mile 6, all of mile 6.


The descent from Doles Copse is 2 miles and leads you along the back gardens of St Mary Bourne, before another half mile climb towards Middle Wyke, on through Lower Wyke at 10 miles.  The route goes south from here, passing through Harewood Forrest, skirting Middleton and then Forton, before heading south-west to cross the A303 and back into Harewood Forrest.  At 16 miles we passed 3 large "animal" sheds in various states of decay but obviously still in use for something, a great reminder of why I'm vegetarian.

Another mile climb out of Harewood Forrest and the route headed south towards Wherwell, where we met James, ate a little and changed tops before heading through the village and crossing the Test river, heading across Chilbolton Cow Common and into Chilbolton at 19 miles.  It was around this point that the front runners of the 50-mile race started to pass us, looking fresh at 29 miles and passing us like they were on a 10km road run.

Caroline crossing the Test in style
Up until this point, we had been running with Lucy and Adam but Caroline and I felt the need to push on and slowly made moved on, as at around 20 miles, just south of Fullerton, the trail runs parallel to the A3057.  This part of the trail is along 7  miles of a disused railway, very flat and slightly downhill, which gave us the chance to increase our pace a little.  At 27 miles the route turns south-west and crosses the River Test again, across open land towards Mottisfont and the next Checkpoint at 29 miles.  We filled up on pizza and put some more in my pack for the next part of the race.

The route heads through the village of Mottisfont before heading south again to Kimbridge, to the outskirts of Romsey where we crossed the Old Salisbury Lane and through Roke Manor Quarry and gravel pit at 32 miles.  There was a sign, "Danger - QUICKSAND", really?  Throughout my childhood, I had watched films from the 1940s and 1950s where the baddies would ignore the signs and meet their demise in a swampy grave, or the good guy would be saved by his horse or dog who happened to have a rope with them.  I grew up with a quicksand escape plan in my head, only there was none in Middlesex, only a few large muddy puddles where on occasion I may lose a shoe.  Quicksand had been one of the disappointments of my youth, and now I didn't have time to explore.

Squabb Wood, that was fun

On through Squabb Wood, a muddy and waterlogged path that had us picking our way slowly to the kissing gate at the edge of the wood and then across a flooded cow field and then onto Romsey at 34 miles, south along the A3090 footpath before passing through a gate and then three miles of following the edge of a woods, our water all but depleted, before cutting east and onto roads and heading south again.  By 39 miles and no sign of a checkpoint we stopped at a kennel and they topped up our water, around the next corner and there was the Checkpoint, I think it could have been a few miles back as most people we spoke to had also run out of water some way back.

Lower Test Nature Reserve

Mile 40 was basically looping under the M27 and then down to the Lower Test Nature Reserve, a wetland with a wood footbridge spanning it.  The final three-quarters of a mile was weaving through the streets of Totton until we turned the final corner and under the finish arch at the Empire Hall.  My watch showed 41.8, close to 40 miles, but who's counting.  It wasn't the fastest finish but we were both happy with 8 hours and 37 minutes.

Caroline had finished her first 40-mile ultra, and with all of her long runs, had finished strong.  We collected our medals and some water, tried the veggie chili and undercooked rice but decided we'd eat the remaining pizza when we got back to the car.  Lucy and Adam finished at 9:07.

The drive back was spent mostly eating, drinking and reminiscing.  Thanks for a lovely day out Lucy and James!


08:37:05 - 28th & 29th/46 finishers

Altra Olympus, Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket, Salomon adv skin 12 set, Garmin Fenix 3.

Nutrition  Tailwind, pizza, marmite wraps, peanut butter and jam wraps, Aldi pressed fruit bars and a few Cliff bars.

Again? Yes, this is a well-managed race and good value for money.  The route is multi-terrain and extremely picturesque.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Imber Ultra - perfect weather conditions again

3rd March 2019
Avon Valley Runners
Location: Westbury, Wiltshire
Weather/Conditions: Yack, again

March 2017 - we started the Imber Ultra in a storm, the wind and rain lashing us the complete distance.  The last 8 miles along the highly exposed range road took its toll on many of the runners and I was happy with a finishing time of 6:32:10.

March 2019 - the wind and rain blasted its way across the Plain....

A fast, if damp start

Like many other race competitors, I stood in the registration area, chatting to friends and delaying leaving the building to face the elements until the last possible moment.   This was an important race for me, I had "previous" on this course and was aiming for a little revenge, but maybe the forecasted weather would get the better of me yet again.  Running with me was Caroline Watson,  who was looking for a 50k qualifying race for later in the year.  We had both trained hard for the past few months, in every weather and terrain, we were prepared.  

The race starts with an initial loop around the playing field of the Leighton Leisure Centre in  Westbury before heading out along narrow tracks and up, a long slow climb to the Salisbury Plain range road where the elements give us the first real hammering of the day.  Once on the range road, the route turns right and after about half a mile left on the marked path and a steep drop down before once again climbing, the peak of which giving one of the best views of the race.

Battlesbury Camp hill fort looking back over Warminster

The marked route then takes you down into Warminster military camp and after a mile or so of road running the track turns sharp right, offroad and you start the climb up to Battlesbury Camp hill fort.  Dropping down of the hill you cross a minor road and then climb again up to Middle Hill, and then down to Checkpoint1 at around 7 miles.  Leaving the CP you climb once again, onto Scratchbury Hill, on to Cotely Hill just north of Heytesbury.  By now the weather seemed to be behind us, pushing us on and we managed to keep a good pace.

The route heads east, and for the next few miles are a gradual climb with the rolling hills providing some shelter from the wind, following military tracks and tank tracks the path begins a slow decline towards Chittern and Checkpoint 2, that lays at the end of a narrow and often flooded track.  Once through CP2 the route heads through the small village and then northeast, along an open and desolate track past Copehill Down (military) village where troops train for fighting in built-up areas. On and into the village of Tilshead, where the course heads northwest and Checkpoint 3 awaits in a small car park at 18.5 miles.

Note the range flag being pummeled in the wind.

From CP3 the route is grass track, uneven and long in parts, that heads north to Gore Cross where the route joins the range road.  For those running with deep lug trail shoes the next 10 miles along the range-road can be slippery, there are no drop bags points around the course so changing shoes is not an option.  Personally, I run the course in Altra Lone Peaks and although I slip on the muddier sections the overall they are excellent all-rounders.

From 21 miles the route heads west and climbs, passing the extremely windswept but well stocked Checkpoint 4 at 22 miles, and continues steadily up until almost 25 miles.  The section of the race is high and very exposed, the wind slammed into us and drove the rain horizontally across the track.  We watched runners a little way ahead being pushed across the road as the hedge to our left gave way to open fields, we suffered the same fate but pushed on and tried not to lower our pace.

Wind and rain battered but still smiling.
Being local and having run this section of the course many times we had some home advantage in knowing exactly where we were, but the weather was getting worse and when we passed Checkpoint 5 at 27.5 the driven rain was more persistent.  We climbed away from CP5, the last real hill of the race, and finally reached Bratton Down Camp.  Many runners were suffering at this point and were walking, but we dropped our heads to the rain and pushed on.  As we passed the quarry above Westbury the wind picked up and rain made wearing my glasses pointless so I took them off and Caroline stashed them in my pack.  Our pace picked up again and we finally passed one lady who had been just in front for most of the race and turned to take on the last descent of the race. 

The last descent is a steep hill, covered by large and small rocks and soft sandy soil.  In the rain, the whole path becomes a shifting riverbed and technical in places.  Without glasses, I can see but it's not great.  So I went for it.  Caroline followed me step for step, having spent the last few months building up confidence on downhill sections while running at pace.  We passed, at speed, runners picking their way down the hill and by the time we reached the bottom were completely clear of all those we had been struggling to pass for some miles.

The last stretch is along a road, turn left through 200 meters of trees and then the marshalls at the car park came into view, we found the energy for a final push and, cheered on by our club mates, went through the finish arch together, taking twenty minutes off my previous race time.

After the cold and very wet morning, I took refuge in the hot showers and followed it by taking longer over a steaming mug of tea.  We had conquered the beast, it was time to rest, but only for a few days.


Finish time:  6:12:20    Joint 51st/115

Altra Lone Peaks, Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket, Salomon adv skin 12 set, Garmin Fenix 3, Hawk Eyepod Sports prescription sunglasses.

Pizza, peanut butter and jam wraps, dried mango pieces, jelly beans, Aldi fruit bars, Cliff bars, and Tailwind.

Again? Probably pacing again next year.

Race video from 2015