Race Review – The Serpent Trail Ultra

Ultimate Field Play with Bad Robot, Badder Theresa and me.

This one was not on the radar. I’d not even heard of it. Of all the runners I know only 3 had run this before, Alison (@menagerie42) in 2017 and Ally (@photogirlruns) and Helen (@poorepurr) last year. It is a relatively new race, RD’d by Freedom Running that snakes its way down the Serpent trail from Haslemere for the 100K and Petworth for the 50 to Petersfield (about an hour outside of London). Fortunately all three runners had blogged about it so we had a lot of information to pore over and, as I arrived early doors (the trains are once an hour from Waterloo, and the Finish/Race HQ a cab ride from the station) I met up with Bozenka who mentioned that she had read Ally’s blog too and was looking forward to what Ally described as one of the most beautiful trails and one of her favourites. What neither of us were looking forward to, as we met up with Helen, was that the Serpent Trail is not named such because of the snaking route that takes you through valleys and woodland. No. Oh, no. It is called the Serpent Trail because it goes through the habitat of the 3 most common snakes in the UK [Adder, Grass and Smooth], none of which we wanted to see close up.

The Bloggage

  • Ally – Beautiful and Brutal
  • Helen – A Long Hot Day Out
  • Alison – A Great First Ultra
Poster Girl Ally at the 2018 race

According to the website there was a lot for me to like about this race from the start. You can use sticks if you want. This is a tick. There would be 5 checkpoints, so roughly one every 10K, which would be needed on the hot summer’s day that it would turn out to be. There was an overly generous 14 hour cut off. You could hike it if you wanted. Music was allowed. There was a full bar at the end, and food vans, camping, honour bar style breakfast. It was cupless, and even the coffee vendor sold his wares in biodegradable cups. What is there not to like? Oh, other than the…

Bozenka and I have been friends for several years meeting, as many of us do, at races, after chatting on social media. I had mentioned a few times that I was heading that way, Helen had too, but I was not expecting to see Boz, and it was a lovely surprise. Neither of us, and this was fortunate, even knew we were in the race a month ago. We were put on a waiting list for a month, but then got the email to say we had got in. A few races have these waiting lists at the moment. I think it is more likely they are working out if they can expand the field, rather than inviting people when others drop out. After all, most don’t message the RD to say they aren’t coming to the race. Anyway…. snakes…

There was, and it will be the last time I mention our legless friends before you get all concerned and squeamish, little chance of us seeing any snakes though. With 100K, 50K, half and 10K races trundling down the same paths, roads and trails, if the snakes had any sense they would be long gone. Although it was baking hot, so there was always a chance, no matter how small, of seeing Hissing Sid sunbathing.

The Day

After catching a train to Petersfield from Waterloo I did half consider walking to the rugby club that housed the tented race HQ for the day, coffee and food vans, and the campers from the night before. The 100K runners went out at 4.30am, so camping was the only real option unless you are very, very local. It was a short lived consideration though, as several of my fellow runners got off the train and straight into a cab. It was, according to Google Maps, a 40 minute walk, so maybe a cab was the right idea.

Upon arrival you were issued with a lovely pink Freedom Racing tee. Nice fit and quality too. Then you picked up your bib and were given a new kind of timing chip for me, a square on a lanyard that your needed to tap in at every checkpoint to avoid disqualification. The rugby club had toilets open to us, showers even, but no dedicated, manned bag drop. There had been a bit of a miscommunication leading up to the weekend when I asked about a bag drop (for us all to store our post race stuff), and was told about drop bags (for the 100K with changes of socks, nutrition, sun cream etc). Different things. Very different things. And so, after hiding our bags in the bar behind some fold up tables in the club, we were given a short race brief before Boz, Helen and I joined 300 other runners for an hour on the buses to the start.

And when we got there? There had been a bit of a fuck up. No toilets. The RD in his full briefing said the toilet man thought the race was on Sunday not Saturday and so there were none. But, and testament to the guy, he would speed over to CP 1 to deliver the loos there. And with that we were off…

The Route

According to the website…

The Serpent Trail is a long distance trail through some of the most breathtaking countryside in the South East.  The Serpent Trail 50k Ultra race is the southern half of the trail, starting just outside Petworth and finishing in Petersfield via a mix of paths and tracks on generally sandy trails that dry well, plus short sections of road. The highest point of the 50k is within the first 3 miles of the race, with a long downhill to follow and smaller undulating hills thereafter as you run through habitats rarer than rain forest. This race takes you on a journey through woodlands, greensand hills, lowland heath and river meanders in some of the best, quintessentially English Countryside you could find!

The 50k is a flat route so is a great course for those looking to go fast, a great first Ultra race or a good long distance walking challenge!

  • 50km Distance / 700m Total ascent

  • Coach Transport to race start

  • 5 Checkpoints

  • Walkers welcome

  • Serpent Trail markings PLUS full race signage along the route

  • Camping available on Friday and Saturday night

  • Food and licensed bar in venue

  • Free massage after the race by South West Body Mechanics Clinical Sports Therapists

  • Professional race images by No Limits Photography uploaded FREE onto social media after the event

  • The top 3 Male and Female finishers in each race will receive prizes from excellent local running shops Alton Sports!

The checkpoints were as below… well, according to the website. The reality was a little different.

CP No. CP Name 50k TOILETS
START Petworth Y
1 Fittleworth/Tripp Hill 11k / 6.6m Y
2 Grafham 22k / 13.6m Y
3 Midhurst 29.8k / 18.5m Y
4 Dumpford 38.2k / 23.5 m Y
5 Durford Mill (water only) 45.8k / 27.9m
TOTAL ASCENT 2032ft
FINISH 50k / 31.2miles Y

How I did

It did not start well with my bus sickness turning me green on the way, prompting Boz to close her eyes and offer a prayer to the race gods that I didn’t projectile vomit all over the place. Fortunately I didn’t and we arrived in one piece, contents of my stomach (actually nothing as I hadn’t eaten) intact, although feeling a little sorry for myself and looking a tad green around the gills.

As the bus ride took an hour we were waiting on several other buses to arrive, prompting the start to be moved to 10am, and so I took my time to chill, breathe, go through all the paler shades of green until I was my normal colour (patchwork tan) and then was ready to go when the countdown began. Helen was walking it so I wished her well at the start as we began to head up the first hill, and then ran for a few dozen yards before we came to a grinding halt at a kissing gate. It stopped everyone in their tracks and took a good 5 minutes to get through it. But when through, the race became everything that Ally said it was – Both beautiful and brutal.

There were fallers though. Quite a few. The paths had plenty of hidden danger, regardless of the snakes. The number of roots, and stones meant you had to keep your eyes on the ground at all  times. A lady runner fell very heavily in the first couple of miles. Add to those trip hazards long grass that had been beaten down and was stretched across the route in front of you. I caught up with a fella who was covered in dry mud, looking for his glasses after a fall sent him sprawling. It forced the complacency out of you as you finally got into your routine and the KMs started to tick over.

My first trig point. Awwwww,

The paths varied as the day went on. For a few miles we would be on fallow farmland, edging the fields on paths downtrodden by those ahead of us. Over gates and through stiles and we were into woodland. It was very hot. I had opted for a vest to even out the patchwork tan I’d been developing as I raced through the summer. Still, I was drenched within half an hour. They do say sweat is just fat crying, in which case my rolls were bawling by mile 5 in the Hampshire sunshine.

It was so hot that many over hydrated, causing nausea and sickness. A lot of people vomited, their salts low and bodies struggling. I always start with 2 bottles, one with SOS in water, the other something sugary. It works for me. Sip the salts, drink the sugar. I took a pause at a convenience store called the Heath or something. The lady server mentioned she was doing a roaring trade that day, all runners or supporters. I got a coke, an orange drink and a bottle of water, replacing my sugary squash and diluting the SOS a  little more to make it last. The coke I downed before getting on my way.
At one CP, probably the second, maybe third, I tried to eat. It was a big fat FAIL. I had picked up the smallest of Marmite sandwiches. The lady at the CP said try. I said I wasn’t sure if I could, but took it anyway. 2 minutes up the trail I spat it out as a single ball of dry dough. I didn’t have any saliva in me to break it down. I would eat later though, at 2 or 3 in the afternoon. I had packed a Mars Duo, but didn’t eat that, or the Boost,  but I had a bag of Drumstick Squashies. My running buddy Jane had these at Fire and Ice and they’d gotten us through that one in one piece. If they could work there they would work here. I remembered this as I packed them and they got me through and over a sickness hump.

The terrain changed a few times. I spotted signs as the trees (firs I think) got taller and drier. The signs warned of the danger of fire. Their appearance coincided with the trails being replaced with sand. Clearly to work as a fire break they had dug into the paths and poured tonnes of sand on them. Great to stop a catastrophe, not great when trying to run on them 20 miles into a race.
I cut my arm at one point, running too close to thorn bushes. The photographers popped up from time to time. My tunes kept me going as hills were climbed until you reached the summit, a trig point at the top, and a view to die for.
We were running gorse gauntlets. The narrow paths overgrown with the spiny bushes either side, grateful of any actual path, or, more so, spongy woodland trails with the brown pine needles acting as a cushion for beaten up feet.
It was the third CP that was mis-measured. It should have been at 29K, it was actually nearer to 33. And running those 2 miles in the heat was a mental drain. The CPs though were all good. at the third they were cutting melon. I had a few pieces of honeydew and cantaloupe before filling my bottles, pouring a jug of water over my head and venturing back out into the stunning countryside.
There was some road near a wedding venue, that did mean some time running practically in the hedges as the odd car whizzed by too fast and too close. But there was hardly any traffic, and the road was such a small part of the route, that I wouldn’t mind running it again. There was also a wheat field, where two photographers were lying in wait. I was walking at that point and asked them if they wanted me to run. They said yes and I got my Bad Robot meets Theresa May moment.
And then we were on the outskirts of Petersfield. Helen had warned us at the start about last year and how she arrived close to the rugby club only to find that she needed to run several KMs through a nearby nature reserve before reentering the club grounds and the finish. And this little titbit of knowledge did me well, as I ran the pavements of the town and then turned and into what I could assume was the nature reserve she mentioned. It meant I was close to home. Time to dig in, and get it done. And that is what I did, finishing just 5 minutes off my 50K PB.

The Bling

It is wooden! And it is perfect that it is. I did think it was my only wooden medal but the Royal Park leaves are as well. Still, Boz and I liked them, and the tees.

In Summary

Despite the early start to get there, and the bus nausea, the lack of loos at the start, the heat, the sand, CP 3 being 2 miles away from where it should be and struggling to get a taxi (of which there are 4 in Petersfield and only 2 Uber drivers) I really loved this one. Those were minor issues in the grand scheme of things. 5 minutes off a 50K PB in the heat and the hills, including a stop at the shop for drinks, a lot of walking the ups and I am happy with that. Sure, we were a turn from getting lost a few times, but we chose wisely. Sure, the sand was draining and the gorse vicious, there were a few drivers who sped down the roads despite there being runners on the road. But all in all this was a stunning route. I have to agree with Ally, who spends a lot more time than me on the trails, that this was a beautiful trail race. Boz and I loved it for sure and said as much as we headed back to London and I can and will highly recommend it. I would have run a dozen trail 50ks this year by the end and I am pretty confident that this will be near the top enjoyment-wise. It was hardly the snake equivalent of running with the bulls that I first thought. Ally’s blog nailed it really. Go read that, and then sign up for next year.

WOULD I RUN THE SERPENT TRAIL AGAIN? Probably.

WOULD I RECOMMEND THE SERPENT TRAIL? Definitely. One of my favourite trail races thus far.

***All photos courtesy of No Limits Photography***

Next Up: The Stour Valley Path 50K

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. poorepurr says:

    Do read my blog about last year’s race….it’s the view from last place so will be somewhat different from Ally’s. Hx

    Like

    1. runnersknees says:

      And now added to mine 🙂

      Like

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