Race Review – Tring Ultra 2021

Back on Familiar footing at the Tring Ultra for my last 50K of the year, and my 11th ultra in 2021. Suffice to say I think I will be able to hit my 12 in 12 minimum target for the fourth year on the trot and will push my record of 14 in a year with a bit of luck. I’d run this race in 2019 as my last comfy run before Chicago. Caroline Aylott was there and she would be there again, which was a pleasant surprise. I am no longer on twitter, or use it to the bare minimum, mostly promoting the blog and podcast, so miss seeing who is running where. And it was good to catch up with her and hear about her plans to spend more time walking with her son, rather than entering events.

I often say that I do so many of these Herts, Berks, Surrey, Sussex, Hants ultras that they all blend into one. That is true to a degree, especially when the Thames, the SDW and NDW are part of the overlapping routes. But there are key parts I recall, and taking photos and recording podcast updates as I hit each 5K marker or checkpoint allow me to look back and think, oh yeah, I remember it now.

The Tring Ultra had plenty of those moments, refreshed by listening to the podcast from the 2019 race. It would start at the Tring Cricket Club. The route would be a figure 8 on its side, so the infinity sign. You would head out from the cricket club west, through the wealthy neighborhood to a long straight country lane to the canal. Here you would follow it, standing to one side as cyclists went by, making the most of the flat for about 13KM until you deviate and enter Wendover Woods. A good 4 or 5 miles of undulations that were fortunately crowd free this year, and you exit and hit some farmland before arriving back at the intersection point and heading out onto the west loop of the course, including a second and then third stretch of the canal either side of a torrid time climbing the Ridgeway.

The key factor for me was not the race but the following races. With my first back to back road marathons since April 2019 coming up I wanted to take it easy. Sure, I always set myself multiple goals, finish, finish healthy and well, beat my previous time, get my best time of the year at the distance, and get that rarity, a PB, but if anything I needed to keep and eye on Loch Ness in a week and Manchester a week later. I felt like plodding slow ultras all year is a way of papering over the cracks of my lack of fitness. Since racing has started I had neglected the poor Peloton. I have restarted Parkrun again with a visit to Ally Pally, and have gained two pairs of “magic” shoes with the carbon plate.

The issue I was having, despite chats with very seasoned runners, was that it had been so long since I ran a road marathon that the experience was now scary again. It was abstract to me. I could not relate the two experiences of a slow trail ultra and my upcoming road marathons. They would be on road all the time, so no mud or difficult surfaces where you need to watch your footing and slow down. There would be no stiles to climb, livestock to avoid, or CPs to tap in and out of after spending a time filling your bottles and chatting as you grabbed something to eat. There would be no long muddy climbs through the woods. Loch Ness has a couple of small lumps but it’s mostly downhill or flat and Manchester is completely flat. But, again, it had been 20 months since Madrid and Hannover, so I was worried and therefore I would take Tring cautiously. If I ticked any boxes it would be a bonus, and so to the race.

After Neil the race director let two elderly ladies head out early (they would take 13 hours or so), he invited run/walkers or joggers in dribs and drabs to head out. No mass race briefing or Braveheart like charge over the start line. A group of 6 were allowed to go. Then a couple. A single runner here. A single runner there. Then during a slight pause in proceedings another runners and I stepped over the rope of the start area and were allowed to head out.

And it was pretty much as remembered. After crossing the cricket field a right turn followed and you ran a long bend through the plush neighborhood before hitting that long straight country lane. Decent surface, nice and quiet. You hit the canal and turn left, edging it for over an hour. It is dark, murky, nasty with clouds of midges at head height. The canal path is narrow. I kept an eye over my shoulder for faster runners catching me up, as well as walkers, runners and cyclists (insert expletive here) coming the other way. In these cases you would have to stop and stand to one side and let them buy. The river folk were more ramshackle than normal, the barges older and rotten. It was not the kind of picture of river live that would sell it to anyone. It was basically swamp bound caravanning. Still, knowing that Wendover Woods and the Ridgeway was to come I was ok with the flat, regardless of the rundown nature of the scene.

At 13KM you come away from the canal and enter Wendover Woods. The home of the Gruffalo. No part of the woods are flat. You are either climbing or descending. There is no middle ground. Luckily, unlike 2019 when the world and his mother was out and about and clogging up the paths, it was silent. The only people you saw for a majority of the time was your fellow runners and there were very few of them, 128 to be exact spread over the countryside. Neil warned us that the Wendover Parkrun would be on and not to follow their signage. It was fine. Their signs were plastic red arrows, ours were a combination of yellow and black arrows, red and white tape, and orange spray paint. The latter throwing me as they sprayed dots on the ground and every so often I would miss them.

After the woods you come out and into the countryside. Farmland and field bisecting paths that were baking hot in 2019 and here they were just humid. The sweat dripped off me as I came to the 2nd checkpoint at a bridge by the canal, and took the left fork, rather than the right, to head back out for the second half.

More single lane canal path, more rotten barges sitting on the still murky brown water, more clouds of midges before farmland, and the Ridgeway. The section of the Ridgeway they use is constant. You are either climbing bare hills on shallow chalk paths, or gnarly hills where you have to keep your arms in to avoid brambles and thorns tearing at you, and all the while twisting your ankles on the loose stone covering.

I saw Spencer. I made the last checkpoint, I was passed as I entered a dark woods by Whiffers, and I kept my head down. I had an eye on the clock. I would be fine. I hit the swamp and followed it out and along the country lane before the plush neighborhood and the cricket club. They tried to clap me over the line, wanting me to run, but it wasn’t happening. I was ahead of my planned time, so goal 1 finish tick, goal 2 finish healthy and well tick, goal 3 beat the last time tick. I even made the shuttle bus and got the first train home, with 2 minutes to spare. So tick and tick for my last ultra of the year.




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