Last year was the inaugural running of the Wendover Woods 50 and I took my camera along to film the event. Having been injured and done almost no training leading up to the race, and given the nature of the course, I set myself a target of 12 hours. When I’m filming I rarely ‘race’, but I still like to have goals. I completed the first Wendover Woods in 12 hours and 7 minutes feeling pretty done in, but elated and eager to come back and give it a proper go.
Trying to Race
I’ve given myself a few weeks off from filming races recently. I’ve made 12 race films this year, the last one being my film of the three-day Atlantic Coast Challenge. The last three races I’ve done are ones which I have filmed before and which I decided I would actually try and race this time around. So, I finished 47th at the Beachy Head Marathon in 3:38. That’s 5 minutes faster than my first ever road marathon and 23 minutes faster than my previous best on that course. Brecon Beacons Ultra was a week before Wendover Woods. Didn’t plan that too well, but I still decided to race both. I finished in 12th place at Brecon, with a time of 7.47. That is 1 hour 38 minutes faster than I ran in 2014 and arguably my best ultra race result so far.
And so to the 2017 running of the Wendover Woods 50. I had run a total of 5km in the week between the Beacons Ultra and Wendover Woods. My legs were feeling good, but I was worried that, at some point during the day, the previous week’s race would come back and bite me in the butt. Richard, my running wife, was injured last year, but is right on the money this year, having clocked 3.31 at Beachy Head and 7.50 at Brecon. He picked me up at 5am and off we sped up the M23 and round the M25 towards Aylesbury.
A Freezing Field near Aylesbury
In a slight, but very welcome change from last year, race HQ, kit check, bag drop, and refreshments were all accommodated in one huge marquee in the middle of the field. First port of call was kit check. Usually, a Centurion race mandatory kit check is a scary affair. Very thorough and very strict. On this occasion though, it was a breeze. Hat, gloves and base layer, please. No checking for a head torch or spare batteries for your head torch, or a compass, or space blanket, body bag, official Ordnance Survey map of the route, waterproof trousers, water and windproof jacket with taped seams and minimum resistance of 10,000mm! Many of these items are required kit for the race, but there was zero chance of rain and the nature of the course is such that the risk of getting lost is negligible. I think Centurion decided the main thing to focus on was making sure people could stay warm.
It was cold. Zero degrees at race start. I pulled my buff over my ears as James cupped his hands over his mouth a blew a pretend siren to start the race. Now, if you are racing, I think it’s almost essential to have a plan. You need a plan for your pacing, you need a plan for your hydration and nutrition and you need a goal finish time. Some people have an A, B and C goal so they can adjust their plan depending on how things pan out. You don’t want to make things too complicated and you need to be flexible.
The Big Plan
My plan was this. I had just one goal finish time, of under 10 hours. Complete each 10 mile loop in approximately 2 hours. Don’t stop at the half way aid station at all. Red Bull in one soft flask for fast glucose, and water in the other soft flask. Drink around 200ml of Huel at race HQ before starting the next lap. Don’t hang around. Huel is my current go to calorie drink. It’s basically a meal replacement in powder form which I mix with full fat milk. It’s too grainy to put in a soft flask so I only use it where I am able. I do want you please, to take note of my plan to complete each loop in 2 hours.
Pacing is arguably the most important and overlooked factor in distance running. We all know the age old adage of ‘don’t go off too fast’. This applies to a race of any distance from 800 metres to 200 miles. When people start running, often their over-riding desire is to run as fast as feels comfortable, whilst their bodies are able. This allows them to get some miles ticked off and to bank some time, before the legs start to tire or before they hit ‘the wall’. But, you know what, this is almost always a massive mistake. It’s ok in a 5 or 10k race where you can probably go out hard, grit your teeth and hang on in there. But for a marathon and above you are at much greater risk of a DNF, injury or the dreaded march of death.
Two Hours per 10 Miles
I am a huge fan of even pacing where possible. In a race like the Wendover Woods 50, there’s no way that you can run each mile or kilometre the same. Did I mention the 3230 metres of elevation? But because it’s a looped course, that makes it perfect for breaking into even sections. As well as finishing each loop in 2 hours, I broke it down into 8km segments as well. So each 8km should take me about an hour. EVERY 8km of EVERY loop, for the entire race, from start to finish. None of this getting miles under the belt or banking time malarkey.
Now, you may argue that as long as you finish in your goal time, it doesn’t matter how you get there. This is true. But isn’t it more satisfying to finish a race feeling strong, overtaking runners and being consistent? Rather than fading badly, feeling like shit and seeing other runners come past you as you crawl to the finish line, because you went out like a madman? I know what I prefer. So let’s see how it all panned out for me during this year’s Wendover Woods 50.
People Know Us
There were lots of people we knew running and lots of people who seemed to know us. It’s great to meet everyone in these races and I always feel embarrassed if I feel I ought to know someone and have forgotten their name. I chat with a lot of people on Facebook and often I don’t have a face to go with a name. My apologies to anyone who said hello whom I stared at with a blank expression!! Anyway, I set off feeling very cold. I let the front runners go, including Neil Kirby, Jon Ellis, Cat Simpson and a Kenyan runner with a 2:08 marathon time. Then I let the midpack runners go too, including Richard who sped off in his usual way!
It can be a little demoralising at first in the early stages of a race if you are trying to stick to a certain pace and you see all these other runners thundering past you. There’s a huge temptation to keep up with the pack for fear of losing touch. But you’re not racing them…..unless you are. You are racing yourself. It’s vitally important to remain confident, resolute and disciplined.
The start takes you along a wide path, past the Cafe in the Woods and down past the Gruffalo sculpture. Then it’s a sharp left turn up into the woods and along muddy single track, covered in leaves and hidden tree roots. You do a loop, with a little bit of climbing, where you wave to a marshal and then wave to them again 8 minutes later. Then, it’s down a gully thick with mud and leaves followed by a brief climb out of the gully to the Power Line descent. Navigation is easy with orange spray on the floor, red and white tape and signposting.
It was called the Power Line descent last year but I didn’t notice the sign there this year. Anyway, about 3 miles into each loop you are treated to the most scenic part of the race as you come out of the woods into a field with lovely views across the countryside to the left. Over a couple of styles and back into the woods, there’s an incline on a wide track before a single track descent leading to the most frustrating section of the course. As you come down the hill, you can see the half way aid station in front of you. Unfortunately, you’re nowhere near it yet! A sharp right turn takes you away from the checkpoint and up a runnable climb called Hell’s Road. Many people walk this but it’s honestly not steep enough and it’s too long to warrant walking.
Hale Lane Checkpoint
There is a very steep, hands on knees climb at the end of Hell’s Road though, which brings you up to a brief tarmac section and then it’s down through the trees again before the steep climb to the Go Ape Adventure Centre. There is a lot of climbing on the loop, but most of the steep climbs are relatively short. If you power hike, they are over pretty quickly. During much of the first loop, I was running with Tim Cox, who is an absolute veteran and a legend in the ultra running community. He’s run almost everything and is no slouch either. One more descent through the woods and a short chalk road section finally brings you to the half way checkpoint at Hale Lane.
The great thing to note, once you get here, is that you are in fact over half way around the loop at about 5.5 miles. This year the race was chip timed at two locations on the course. This made it easy for friends and family to track a runner’s progress during the day on the live feed on the Centurion website. I crossed the mat in 57.45, a little ahead of my target pace. See, even when you are trying to go slow, you could probably go slower. It’s just so easy to get dragged along by other runners if you’re not totally focused and disciplined.
Up and Down, Run and Walk
There’s a long slow climb out of the checkpoint. The fast runners will run this. The rest of us will walk it and use it to eat, drink and prepare for the second half of the loop. The second half is absolutely fantastic. It’s a totally perfect mix of completely unrunnable climbing and very fast, flat or downhill running. I love it. Once you’re at the top of the wide path out of the aid station there’s a 2km downhill run, which last year was named ‘The Boulevard of Broken Dreams’. This leads down to ‘The Snake’ climb. It’s hands on knees here for 300 metres up a steep ascent to the Hill Fort Loop. Kilometres 13 and 14 you can run fast again to get to the steepest climb on the course, ‘Gnarling Around’.
There you are, happily bounding along a fairly wide, clear path through the woods when you come across a sign telling you to leave the path to the right and go up, through the trees, where there doesn’t seem to be a path at all. Gnarling Around is a killer, but it’s only 50 metres long and if you gut it out you’re at the top in no time. When you get to the top, you know you only have 2km to the end of the loop. Unfortunately, most of those two kilometres are uphill! There’s a horrible set of steps with railings that are too low and too wide apart to be of any use to anyone and a final slog to get you to the perimeter of the field. You can see race HQ but you have to run 400 metres around the field and climb a style to get to it!
One Down Four to go
I finished my first loop in 1 hour 48 minutes, with over 600 metres elevation under my belt. A little too fast perhaps, but no disaster. At the end of each loop, you run over the timing mat and right through the middle of the marquee. You can stop for food, get your bag, sit down, sleep, whatever you like. I guzzled some Huel from the 4 litre milk carton in my bag and set out for the second loop. It’s tempting to walk out the first few hundred metres. In fact, that’s exactly what I did last year. However, the smarter option is to run out of the tent, across the field and down the hill. At this point, there’s a long slow climb up to the Cafe in the Woods. That’s where you can walk for a bit.
I used the same run walk strategy for lap two. I ran in all the same places and I walked in all the same places. I didn’t stop at the half way checkpoint and I made sure I stuck to my target time. On this loop, I didn’t have to think about going slowly. I felt I could just run at a comfortable pace and that would be about right. I made it to the checkpoint in an hour and two minutes. Given that the checkpoint is just over half way round, I considered this to be pretty much perfect. By now, the field had thinned out and I was playing leapfrog with a guy from London called Nyuito, who was doing his first ultra. I also passed James Bennett and Richard Steeley towards the end of the loop. James finished 8th at the SDW 100 this year in 17.53.
I was back in the tent after 20 miles, in 3 hours 43 minutes of this year’s Wendover Woods 50. That was a 1 hour 54 minute lap. By now I was thinking, ‘ok, if I’m going to crash and burn it’s going to start happening soon’. I was still a little ahead of my schedule, but I was secretly happy that I had a 15 minute cushion. Zoe Norman was at HQ by now, helping out. She made sure I got my bag and that I didn’t hang around too long. I drank some Huel, then grabbed an Iced Latte carton from my bag and ran down to start the long climb up to the cafe. I held on to the coffee until almost half way when I threw it across the road to the guys at the half way checkpoint before starting the Hell’s Road climb.
I felt I was still running well, although I had developed a niggling pain in my right foot. By now I had just about warmed up enough to take my gloves off and put my buff around my wrist, rather than over my ears. I wasn’t going to be removing my jacket though! It wasn’t that warm, but it was a very lovely day. Not a cloud in the sky. As I passed over the timing mat at the half way checkpoint I saw Richard chatting to a marshal up ahead. For a minute I was concerned that there was something wrong, but not so. I caught him up at 26 miles and we talked briefly. But as with the Beacons Ultra last week, I didn’t hang around too long and indeed passing him may have spurred me to run on a little quicker to try and grow the gap.
I completed lap 3 in 1 hour and 58 minutes. So I was losing time each lap, but I was still completing each lap in under two hours. All I had to do now was hold on for two more laps. Zoe took a photo of me as I arrived back at the marquee. I knew I was on course, but I also knew that the last lap in the dark may well take longer, simply because you’re more wary of foot placement and navigation in the dark. I drank my Huel and took my coffee, which I felt was giving me a good caffeine boost at the start of each loop. It was at this point I was also supposed to put my head torches in my race vest. Luckily, as I was running out, one of the marshals reminded me.
Last year I finished lap 4 in the dark. This year was definitely going to be different. By now, I knew I wasn’t going to bonk. I was tired no doubt, but the severe fatigue that I feared might set in after last week’s efforts in Wales had not materialised. I had managed to mitigate the pain in my right foot by rolling slightly on to the outside during the foot strike. The pain definitely eased. I was regularly sipping my water and Red Bull, taking care not to over drink and make my stomach turn. I was keeping to the same script of running the flats and downs and hiking the hills. The only hill I ran on every lap was the Hell’s Road climb. I just felt, if I walked, it would take too long. It’s a good half a kilometre and I really didn’t think I could afford the time.
It was difficult at this stage, to work out who was on what lap. I had been passing a lot of people for the past 20 miles but many of them were a lap behind me. As I made the climb out of the checkpoint, Stuart Leaney came flying past, running up the hill on his last lap. Apparently, the Kenyan runner had dropped from the race because his new trail shoes were hurting his feet. See even the elite athletes can be daft enough to try something new on race day. Neil Kirby had dropped too, due to cramp and a few of the other top runners hadn’t made it this far. I got back to the marquee in 7 hours 43 minutes with a loop of 2 hours and one minute. Still just holding on to that required pace.
I saw club mate Jen Pollit in the tent, as I was about to set out for my last lap. She had two to go but was in good spirits and was totally focussed on getting the job done in her first 50 mile race. I left race HQ in the light for lap 5 and I made it almost to half way round before I was forced to put my head torch on. I passed Paul Downes on the Hell’s Road climb. It was definitely taking me longer to get up the hills and my foot was still hurting, but not enough to stop me. Nothing was going to stop me now. I knew that, barring a total disaster, I was going to make it under 10 hours. It was just a case of how much under 10 I could get. I do love that feeling of catching people. You see a light up ahead and you go for it. Can I reel them in? Some I passed, were only on their third or fourth lap, but occasionally I’d pass a runner on their last lap. “Is that Steve?” a voice shouted in the dark. “Yes, who’s that?” said I. “Steve Amiet!” was the reply. Steve was completing the Grand Slam of Centurion 50 mile races, with Wendover Woods being the last one in the series. Massive well done to him.
My first loop was the 76th fastest of all the first lap times. My last lap was the 17th fastest of all the 5th lap times. At the end of loop one I was in 76th position and I climbed almost 10 places per loop to finish in 28th. Even though I slowed down a little, most other runners slowed down a lot more. I’m not saying even splits is how you must run endurance races. But it works for me. It works when I choose a sensible target finish time, relative to my fitness and it works when all other variables align. For example, you might get your nutrition completely wrong.
It’s also a much more satisfying experience to run consistently from start to finish. We’ve all been there. I’ve had so many races where I get to just over half way and I start seeing runners coming by and disappearing off into the distance. It’s no fun. Most of my long distance races involve me slowing down as the race progresses. The skill is judging it so the slowing down is as minimal as possible. Your pace at the start of the race has a direct impact upon your pace at the finish. We rarely, if ever, achieve truly successful even splits throughout an endurance race. But as long as we keep the theory front and centre, we won’t be far off.
Wendover Woods 50
There were three Worthing Harriers taking part in the Wendover Woods 50. Richard came in just under 10 hours in 9.59 and the irrepressible Jen Pollitt crossed the line of her first fifty miler in 13.47. The male winner, Stuart Leaney, broke the course record, coming home in 7 hours and 34 minutes and my friend Cat Simpson narrowly beat the superb Amy White to win the women’s race in 8.56. There’s something about this course you know. Something that may keep me coming back for more year after year, whilst I can still run.
Many, many thanks to the volunteers who had to endure hours in the freezing cold. At least the rest of us had running to keep us warm. The bowl of soup was an absolute star at the end of the race. The medal has grown somewhat since last year and it was nice to have it presented by the, seemingly, ever-present Vassos Alexander. Thanks also to Stuart March for the photos which adorn this race report. If you are an ultra runner in the south of England then you will know all about Centurion races. If you are yet to experience one I urge you to sign up for Wendover Woods 50 next year. Honestly, it’s just the best day out you can have in a marquee, wearing lycra.