Beauty and a Beast: Ashridge Trail Half Marathon

It’s been a while since I updated my blog and there are many reasons for this – I have been away on holiday at my brother’s wedding and have been extremely busy at work after transferring into a different department. To cut a long story short, there has been a lot on my plate recently, so blogging and social media stuff had to take the back seat for a while!

The Ashridge Trail Half Marathon at the beginning of July has been a particular highlight to my summer so far and has been the ‘halfway’ marker as being the 6th race I completed out of my planned 12 races this year.

The best way to describe this race is that it is a beauty and a beast at the same time – the scenery will take your breath away, however, prepared to be pushed to your limits at the same time. It is going to be a thrilling adventure. Ashridge is everything a seasoned trail runner could ever ask for: ancient woodlands, plenty of dramatic scenery, rolling chalk downlands and lush meadows.

It is situated in an area of outstanding national beauty in the Chiltern Hills, just a stone’s throw away from Berkhamsted (and a 45 minute drive for me). The estate is currently owned by the National Trust. This challenging trail run is a fundraising event to support Rennie Grove Hospice Care. Unfortunately, their NHS funding is close to nothing so they rely on public support for the majority of their income. That’s double the reason to do this race – all proceeds go to the hospice!

Photo credit: AshridgeHouse.Org

I arrived at the race just over an hour before the start time, and I am so glad I did! I rather unwisely picked the car park nearest the Monument and Brownlow Cafe, simply because that is what the organisers had recommended. It turns out I couldn’t have possibly picked anywhere further away from the race village, which was set up next to Ashridge House. I did not mind the 20 minute walk to the start too much (it was a great warmup), however, having to walk back that far after completing this gruelling challenge was the last thing I wanted to do. In fact, I nearly fainted because there was no baggage tent at the race village where I could have left my rucksack safely with my post-run protein drink, so I had to walk that far on an empty tank and very tired legs. Note to self: do park just as you come off the B4506 (Ringshall Road) to go towards the Monument, instead of driving all the way to the Monument.

This race is a relatively small affair with only about 200 runners, but that’s the beauty of it – as opposed to large mass events, you do get to have a bit of banter with others in a very friendly atmosphere and you also don’t need to be worried about getting trampled upon because it gets so crowded. On the other hand though, it is exactly these kind of events that tend to attract the most hardcore runners, the ‘creme de la creme’ of your local running scene. When I see at least one third of the runners rocking their club vests and also realize that I’m part of the 10% female minority, I do get some butterflies in my stomach thinking there is a strong possibility that I might I finish last, as being neither what you would call a ‘hardcore’ runner or a particularly fast one!

Photo credit: Gardenvisit.com

Fortunately, on this occasion my fears were completely unfounded: I did not only finish exactly in the middle of the whole pack, but I also came 2nd in my age/gender category (!). It took me just over 2 hours to finish – which is fantastic, given that this is about the same time it took me to complete the race before this one, which was the pancake flat (and rather un-inspiring) Heyford Air Park race.

I can’t say I trained more or harder for this race than any of the other ones I have done this year. If I’m honest, this significant improvement in my performance is most likely down to eating and hydrating much better than ever before and perhaps a bit of luck on the day itself. I cut out the junk and started tracking my calories and macros, giving special attention to protein, as part of a 6 week transformation challenge my gym organised. As a result of taking better control over my eating, I managed to lose a bit of weight, and started to feel more energetic during my workouts; my average pace has also increased. This makes me think that probably every training plan should start with looking at what and how much you eat – do you really need ALL those calories? Do you consume enough protein? Are you eating the right kind of foods to fuel your workouts and to aid your recovery? These are the questions you should be asking yourself before you embark on any kind of training plan. You simply cannot out-train a poor diet, that’s what I believe!

Photo credit: Laura McGregor Flickr

I really enjoyed the run – even those gruelling, hilly parts. My energy levels were stable and I felt challenged at the right level all along. The scenery and the smaller runner groups that formed were a good distration and motivation to keep pushing myself.  Fortunately, the route was well signposted (with the exception of one spot), so it was relatively effortless to navigate. However, I have to be honest, this is exactly that kind of race where you don’t just want to follow your own nose but stick close to other runners, just to be on the safe side…

One of my favourite race strategies is to glue myself to people in front of me and let them ‘pull me along’. They are usually ones who are just a bit faster than me, so the challenge to close the gap or to eventually overtake is not impossible. At one point, I was following an elderly bloke for a long time, especially on the way up the iconic Ivinghie Beacon (never underestimate an elderly runner in a trail race – they are usually the ones who rule the race!); then I spotted a lady of my age (she looked like a seasoned ultra-runner) running with her dog so I stuck with them for a while.

On the final 3km’s I took stock and felt I still had plenty left in my tank, so I switched into ‘game on’ mode by kicking up the gear, leaving my elderly companion behind (he very kindly wished me good luck for the finish). I felt strong, and invincible as I was whizzing down the narrow trails leading back to the house and the race village; I had a real flow-like experience where I felt I was part of the trail, soaring as the tiredness was leaving my body and was replaced with new-found energy.

Photo credit: Walking in the Country blog

I blast through the finish line feeling on a high, and rather stunned at how well I had done, despite it being a very hilly race (mind you, there were plenty of downhills, too). The people I ran with and chatted to during the race came up to me and congratulated – the first time I felt I had formed a bond with others in a race rather than treating it as a ‘solo adventure’. I  made the effort to chat to the lady with her dog – it turns out they had done many other races together. Maybe I should get myself a four legged running partner at some point? Maybe an Alaskan or Siberian Husky could keep up with my running obsession – in fact they might be the ones nudging me to go for a run.

My overall verdict is that this race is definitely going on my race planner for next year as well. If you love beautiful trail runs, a friendly atmosphere that fosters camaraderie, want to run for a great cause and you don’t mind the lack of glamour and fuss (don’t expect any medals, race photos or prizes for winners), then you will love this race, too!

What’s your favourite race?

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