Thursday, 15 March 2018

Imber Ultra - view from the rear (or tales of a sweep runner)

I never thought you were a fool, But darling, look at you - U2

Race date: 11 March 2018
Avon Valley Runners 
Location: Salisbury Plain
Weather/Conditions: Mild with some light rain showers.  Still some defiant snow.

After chatting with Ian Harryman about the idea of running sweep for the Imber Ultra, having run it last year in a less than ideal conditions, I decided to offer my help to others.  I needed the miles and it was a course I have done both during the day and at night so there would be no surprises.  Over the winter I had trained over the initial miles/hills and led a group of runners training for the ultra out beyond checkpoint one and back on a freezing morning.

Over the week before the race I had been ramping up the miles, as my training schedule was suggesting 70 accumulated miles.  This meant a half marathon during the week and then nine miles on the Saturday before the race on Sunday.  Saturday evening I quickly gathered my kit and packed what I would need, mainly lots of food and warm clothing!  The going could be slow and we may be out on the course for a few hours.

Some of the AVR massive at registration

"I know it is wet and the sun is not sunny, but we can have lots of good fun that is funny" - Dr Seuss

The overnight rain had left the ground wet and the choice of (starting) shoes was a no-brainer, anything with lots of grip!  Arriving at the race car park (a nearby school) I was met by two stewards and sent to another car park as the caretaker had not turned up.  I parked and had a quick hello hug with Paula Jones (2017 first female) and waited for the minibus to the start.  Ian turned up shortly after and we bundled onto the shuttle bus to the leisure centre where the race starts.

While the racers were registering Ian and I attended the marshals brief, and were introduced to the CP marshals.  At this point, I secreted a pair of road shoes with my trusty crew member, Maria, that I would change at the beginning of the road section at Gore Cross.  A good plan that could have been executed better.

As the 9am start loomed the bag drop/hall became packed with (many nervous) runners and Richard Hudson gave the race brief, when asked if there were any first-time ultra runners many hands went up.  Ian and I glanced at each other, it could be a long day.

Everyone filtered out onto the sports field the to the starting arch and in a few moments, the race was started, a lap around the field to spread the runners out.  As Ian was still sorting his pack we shuffled through the start towards the photographer, posing and smiling, and looking ahead at the early "shufflers".  Out of the sports field and up the first hill we were close on the tail of a lady who, she explained, had run an ultra the day before and was in training for the MDS.  We chatted as we moved onto the road and up the second hill, Ian sharing his knowledge of MDS and me playing the joker.

Spot the Aussie
At the top of the first major climb, we saw a runner photographing the snow remnants.  He explained he had flown over from Australia and had to go out and buy a long sleeve top and leggings for the race as, where he came from there was no need for them.  At the top of the climb, we turned right onto the range road for a mile before turning left again and down towards Warminster Camp.  We picked up Mark Ogden from Westbury Running Group and started to push him on towards the CPs within time.

Still runners in the distances at this point
Up and over Battlesbury Hill and Middle Hill to CP 1 where the first casualties of the day were with the Marshals.  Ultra races are hard, there is no dishonour in stopping.  One runner was heading back to the start had decided that the navigation of the course would be too much and although we volunteered to take them round it was not to be.

Onwards and up over Scratchbury Hill before picking up the range road near Heytesbury, Mark started to slow again as we ran over the tank tracks and drew closer to Chitterne.  We arrived after the cut off time but they allowed Mark to continue, shortly after starting this stage he decided that he would withdraw at CP3.  We met a runner returning to CP2 who was feeling sick and retiring from the race, saying her friends were carrying on and pointed to a track that was not part of the route.

A touch bleak at times!

We passed Copehill Down German Village and before long we could see the roofs of the buildings at Westdown Camp, Tilshead.  As we crossed behind the houses at Tilshead and dropped towards the road I headed off to speak to James Crawford, lead Marshal, to let him know that Mark would be dropping out.  James said there were several runners missing and I explained about the runners on the wrong track.  Mark was extremely brave to get this far while recovering from injury and having a lot on his mind - both Ian and I send our thoughts and prayers to you.

Ian and Mark arrived shortly after me and after a short brief from James we set off to catch up with the new back-runner who was some 10 minutes in front.  We set off running and caught up with her at Gore Cross, just before the climb to CP4.

Catherine Crofts, running her first ultra, had picked up a knee injury early in the race but was able to walk, and at a good speed.  We force marched up the hill to CP4, where I changed my shoes to road shoes (thank you Maria!), had a quick coffee and headed out again.  Just another half marathon to go!!  Her time was tight but at the pace, we were marching achievable.  Catherine kept up a good pace, the route from CP4 is open and at times beautiful, but is undulating and a long stretch on the tarmac.

Catherine and Ian on the last few miles.
The rain that had been threatening finally turned up and we stopped quickly to extract and put on our waterproof tops.  The Plain around Imber is high and you can see the rain clouds sweeping in low across the hills, giving you plenty of time to prepare before the rain arrives.

A patrol of soldiers and directing staff came out of the training area and along the range road.  We chatted with the soldiers and wished them well as we passed through their ranks.  CP5 appeared on the horizon and we passed through quickly, only a bottle of Lucozade and a cup of water left, and set off on the final miles.

Looking out over Westbury

We passed Bratton Camp and the chalk pit, the range path flag pole meaning the turnoff back to Westbury now visible.  Finally we were turning off towards the final descent, the route was extremely muddy and I used my running poles for stability - even so, the road shoes had no traction and I almost slid down the hill.  Ian was also in road shoes and was having a similar issue!  Down to the Wellhead Drove and then along Wellhead Lane before finally entering Leighton Recreation Centre and they last few Marshals and Catherine's friends to cheer her in.  She finished in  8:38:01, still smiling!!!

It had been a long day but I really enjoyed helping people.  I had my first blisters in many months, caused by swapping to Hoka shoes which are well cushioned but with a narrow toe box.  While talking about desert racing I also learned that I was better looking than a camel (which is nice), something I may have engraved on my headstone.

Ian and I talked some real rubbish, mostly about food, but we put the world to right and ate our own weight in cakes.  Ian will be my pacer at the Thames Path 100, I'm glad he is available as we both have the same insane streak that allows us to carry on through hurt and pain to focus on the goal.  I've made my peace with Imber but I still have many miles to go.

A Grand Day Out

Again? Yea, maybe after the TP100 I may volunteer again.

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