Tring Ultra will be my 3rd Extreme Energy race. Pilgrims was my first ultra of the year. The Devils challenge (3 marathons in 3 days) is the first race I added to my already growing 2020 race calendar. Amersham Ultra was my first 50K in March last year, and Tring will now be my 12th so I am guessing I love the race organiser, the distance and the feel of a trail race without the time pressure of a road marathon.
And I have run this neck of the woods before, literally, with Berkhamstead, Wendover Woods and the Ridgeway familiar to me. So, with the added bonus of the fee going to Humanity Direct, it was a no brainer. I would be joined too by my dear friend Caroline who would be undertaking her first ultra at the age of 60 11 months after completing her first marathon in Chicago.
So on Hull and Equinox weekend, Caroline and I would be heading an hour north of London to a leafy, hilly and hot Hertfordshire, carrying a bit of extra timber but hey ho, you know what they say…
I learned my lesson relying on one watch when it comes to ultras. The Garmin seemed to do okay but then too many apps and widgets caused it to barely make it to the end last time out. You can’t turn off the HRM on the Polar so that will make it for 6 hours before the lights dim. And so I take two fully charged watches now and swap them out when one starts to die. Head torch and batteries for sure in the Winter and for late starts. Bag of chocolate bites, bag of Squashies. Kendal Mint cake. Lucozade tabs. In case the CPs are skipped. 2 bottles. I think they are 600ml each. A few SOS sachets for when I get sick. Long sleeved base layer. Waterproof. Buff. Tissues in case of danger poo. Cash. Wallet. Keys. In case my bag goes missing from the bag drop. Fully charged phone.
I took a lot more when I ran 100K of RTTS, my first ultra, back in 2016 but since then I pack lighter. The Scott pack is great and comfy and unless I need the kitchen sink, like I did in Fire and Ice, I am happy with it and will use it at Tring.
In the briefing, with arrows pointed and tape held high, we were told that we would leave Tring Park cricket ground (home to the start/finish and race HQ), follow a bike through Tring to the canal. We would then go along the canal all the way to Wendover Woods, and from there we would join the Ridgeway, another canal, come back through Berkhamstead, Ivinghoe, and then come back on ourselves. The route map they gave had a lumpy elevation and it was getting warm already. We were also told that it would be very hot and to drink about 500ml between cps (11K) and not to take salt tablets, which I thought was odd. I often use SOS on long runs, when nausea takes over and my fingers look like giant sausages. Maybe the organiser had experience of runners being sick because of them. I would have thought people being jacked up on sugar the whole day and constantly crashing would be worse for them, but I digress. The whole route can be found here and looks a little, well, actually a lot, well, actually like this.
How I did
I decided to break this one down into a CP to CP race, with the CPs being at 12.5KM, 23, 34, 46 and then home (which measured 54 and not the 50 promised). Taking at least 4 photos between each CP too allowed me to look back and reflect on how different parts of this race were. From the start at the Tring Park Cricket Club we followed a bike across the cricket field. The RD has said we could not run straight across, as the groundsman would kill him. Which is odd, as when I was heading to the finish line, and following the circular rope around the pitch, he beckoned me to run over it.
From the Cricket Club we were on residential roads for a while, lovely big houses either side, as we turned, and turned again before a long straight country lane led us as far as the canal. Not a great section of the canal either, there would be a much nicer stretch later, with barges, and locks, and views. Here, the canal sat still, festering and dark green under a canopy of trees. No movement in the water. The odd fisherman sat motionless, staring at their unmoving fishing floats. We had been warned that none of the route was closed, it would all be open to the public and soon, as we made our way along the tow path, we would be confronted by other runners, joggers, cyclists, dog walkers. The norm. Heading out in the 9am runner start I started to catch up with the 8am walkers before we hit the first checkpoint, after crossing a bridge across the canal, taking a long stony path and following the signs toward Wendover Woods.
The timing chip was the same as the other XNRG races, the kind that makes you look like you are on day release from the Scrubs. You tap in as you reach the CP and then get to replenish. The CPs are great too, well stocked and well marshalled. Marmite, peanut butter, jam and Nutella square sandwiches were plentiful, blackcurrant or orange squash, pretzels, sausage rolls, Haribo. Everything you needed. At CP 1 I had barely touched my second bottle of water, and still had an inch of Lucozade in the first. I dumped them both out, put squash in both, crammed a couple of sandwiches, stopped a runner going the complete opposite direction out of the CP, and started on my way to CP2.
With Caroline running this race too, we had spoken online leading up to it, then at the race HQ we discussed tactics (mainly just enjoy it and take your time), and as the day went on and the sun started to bake me, I updated Twitter and Insta followers with my progress, and checked to see if she was ok.
The route between CP 1 and 2 took us through Wendover Woods, scene of so many races including the Centurion races and several of their white t-shirts could be seen on racers and supporters alike. At the top of an unforgiving hill, as Gruffalo signs started to appear by the side of the path, one cheered me on as I reached the summit. It was good to get the support, rather than being looked at like a freak (as we would be by slow walking family groups from time to time). I mean, who would be running around on a baking hot day like this?
The woods were at least cool. The canopy did allow us to stay in the shade for extended periods. And with the near constant undulations and hills, right up to the visitors centre and large wooden Gruffalo, I was very glad of it. It kept me cool, as I passed the last of the walkers and came out the other side to hit the second checkpoint, more sandwiches and further squash refills.
CP 2 to 3 was a mixed bag. Coming out of the relative cool of Wendover Woods we ran thorough Berkhamstead and one of the two oddities of the day occurred. The first was in the race briefing when we were told not to take salt tabs. I found this guidance strange, as I would assume that hydration and nutrition is our business, and we should judge what we do and do not consume. The second was odder. I caught up with a couple of lady runners as we reached Billet Lane, 3 more runners just behind me, and, as we crossed the road a local resident came out. He started moaning at us about the route. I pointed up the road and said it is this way. He replied that we were not allowed to go up there as it was a private road.
This was odd as the street sign did not state as much. He then, in front of us, moaning about the RD and stating that this wasn’t our fault at all but we were not allowed up there regardless, he tore the sign off the lamppost and then ripped it in two. It took us a bit aback, this “get off my land” moment, and I got out my phone, checked OS Maps of the GPX to work out an alternative route (luckily there was a road that ran parallel) and then called the RD to say the sign was now missing at the location and could they handle it.
They said they would and I joined the other runners as we ran up and by the school at the top of the hill and out into the countryside as we approached half way. The shade was now gone and we edged fields dried in the sun, before a narrow bridge over the motorway, a brief time along a much nicer, fresher looking part of the canal, and the cow fields. There were two sheep fields we could cross on the day, a field of horses and two fields of cattle. As I approached the first herd of bullocks, a runner had been standing unsure what to do as they blocked the route, and the gate. Two other runners arrived and wafting of arms moved the herd away enough for us to get by. The second herd was a strange one. The gate opened up into the middle of the herd, with another gate 5 yards away. The path was literally intersected by a cow thoroughfare, and the herd was right there.
From CP 3, fields became the whole route. No more people for a while, not until we got back into the woods (I want to say by Ivinghoe). It was here I went through the horse field. They were not interested in us, which was good because my right hip was starting to act up, forcing me to move differently. The knock on effect being that then my knee hurt, and then my foot so I dropped to a shuffle.
The CPs were a little off. As I said, this 50K measured 54 and change, and it did mean that you could not rely on the paperwork to inform you how far there was go to. In the end I would check the OS Maps app, and use that as a better gauge of progress. The final CP was supposed to be 6K from the end. Bob Hope of that being right. I was happy to see Joanna from the Pilgrim Challenge. She was volunteering the final checkpoint, right in the middle of the Ridgeway, a horrible set of ups and downs in the baking heat, complete with a trig (yay), and hundreds of sun baked walkers. There was coke and pepsi at the last 2 CPs too, so squash binned, I was ok with sipping my sticky way through the rest of the day. Up and up a few more hills to great views and then I could finally descend, across a couple more fields and then down and to the canal. I slowed. Hold on, I recognise this place. It was the canal we started on. Just this, then the straight country lane, a couple of residential roads with lovely large houses, a turn, and then I would be at the cricket ground, to finish 100 Marathon Club number 44 in exactly 4 years, and 13th of 2019 so far (4 to go).
A pint of beer later and I was on the way home, checking to see if Caroline was ok. I heard that she had taken a bit of a tumble, and had taken a wrong turn at one point. I checked on twitter when I got home and saw a Periscope video of a sheep field (no there were no rams). I recognised exactly where it was and it was good to see that she was still going despite saying how tough it was. It was only later that I discovered that she had not had the best of times, despite finishing her longest race, on a particularly hot day, on a very hilly and unforgiving course.
I mentioned it in my last review, that the race you have one year, isn’t necessarily what someone else will experience the next. Well, that was underlined this time around by the contrasting experiences that Caroline and I shared. Or, rather, didn’t share.
As I said I did check up on Caroline as I made my way home. She had taken a bit of a fall, and then had experienced the tail runners getting way too close pretty much like I did at Ultraks. This can actually ruin a race for someone. Jenni and I managed to get through Ultraks, and only really started to enjoy it again after we had, in no uncertain terms, told the back markers to Foxtrot Oscar. Caroline though, was not in the same position. She was battered a little from her fall, was not experienced at this kind of race, but she kept going. When the back markers arrived they asked if it was ok to remove all the tape and arrows. This is ludicrous as the race has no time limit, and plenty of walkers. It was one of the reasons Caroline chose this race in particular. They asked if she could just follow the GPX file but there is no school like the old school, and Caroline is Head Girl, so she was following the arrows and the tape.
And from there, they were barking at her heels for the full race. Not 50K, no, she added an extra 6 miles to her total due to missing some tape and taking a wrong turn. So a combination of the brutality of the course, the heat, the constant mental pressure of having the sweepers behind her did ruin the race for her somewhat. And I, for one, feel genuinely bad for her. But, and this is key, this inspirational lady came through, completed the race and her first ultra marathon, collecting a well earned certificate to go with her medal and knows what to expect next time. A flatter course, on a less hot day and she would take 3 hours off her time. Regardless of how she thinks she did, I couldn’t be more proud. Well done, Caroline.
The Bling and tee
Although bigger it looks just like the Amsersham Ultra medal. The tees I like, and this one is orange and will join the gym rotation.
Looking back on my 3 XNRG races the level of support, CPs, medal, tee, and route are consistent. And I am looking forward to Devil’s Challenge next year. This one did put me through the wringer. It was very hot. It was very hilly at times. I was glad of the canopy cover in Wendover Woods, I was happy with the flat paths when we had them, and the solitude before we hit the Ridgeway. Of the 3, I preferred Amersham to Tring and Pilgrims, but I think that was because it felt more low key, flatter, and cooler. Still, it was a challenge and I did it.