After completing the inaugural Wendover Woods Half Marathon the weekend before, I toed up the start line of this 16.5 mile race in the heart of the stunning Ashridge Estate next. This run is organised by two guys called Anthony Kent and Andy Neill who are both keen runners and members of Tring Running Club. They have run the route many times and its one of their favourite local runs so they turned it into a race. This is a relatively low-key event with just under 400 runners each year; it is not advertised very widely at all, I only heard about it through Facebook. In my view, this event deserves much more publicity: it’s without a doubt one of the most exhilarating, but at the same time one of the most punishing trail races I’ve ever completed. Add in generous amounts of sticky mud, gut buster hills and some really gusty winds and you get the picture. And because of that, the sense of achievement I got after crossing the finish line is something that will stay with me for a very long time.
As the name says on the tin, the race route was broadly following the boundary of the vast estate. This circular race is run in different directions each year – in 2019, we ran it clockwise. According to the regulars at this race, neither direction is easier than the other; they each present different challenges! The truth is, anyone could do this route as a solo-run, as the course is well sign-posted (in most places), but it is definitely more fun to do it as a crowd! Not to mention, the chances of getting lost when the event is on is quite minimal.
This was a slightly longer distance than I had run over the past year or so, therefore I had to do some more serious pre-race preparation than normal. What I mean is that as being a breastfeeding mum (Alex was 5 months old at the time of completing this race), and spending so many hours on my feet out in the wild, presents certain new challenges for me… My breasts get full every few hours even when my son is not around (cheers, mother nature!), not only causing engorgement, but also significant discomfort if I can’t get the milk out by either feeding or by expressing. When this happens, I literally end up with ‘cement boobs’. Therefore, my trusty Medela Swing double breast pump has become part of my race kit over the past few months. After picking up my race number and a cup of coffee from the National Trust cafe near the start line at the Bridgewater Memorial, I sneaked back to my car to relieve my boobs ahead of the event. I was quietly praying that most runners would have gathered around the start area by that time, giving me some privacy to perform the operation. Unfortunately, some people were still coming and going so close to the start time, making me feel extremely self-conscious and exposed. However, thankfully, most of them appeared to be in a hurry to pick up their numbers, paying little attention to what was going on in my car as they dashed past me. I guess getting a few weird looks whilst expressing breastmilk in my car is still the better alternative to running for three hours with ‘cement boobs’, or risking getting mastitis which at worst could lead to extreme pain. In the end, I managed to shake off any feelings of embarrassement and carry on with what needed to be done. Thankfully, it only takes about 15 minutes to empty my boobs with my Medela double electric breast-pump which can also be powered by batteries in situations like this so I can use it anywhere.
Now, back to the race itself. Upon examining the competition, I concluded that this trail race is most likely to attract the most seasoned trail runners – everyone seemed to be kitted out with some serious race vests and hydration packs. I was proudly donning my brand new Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta running backpack and a windbreaker/rain jacket from the same brand. I thought this race was the perfect opportunity to trial them ahead of some longer events I had signed up for in the summer. The kit didn’t disappoint, but I do need to get used to drinking from a squishy bottle placed into the front pocket, and find a way to prevent it from falling out (I ended up carrying it in my hands for the most part of the race). The jacket gave me really good protection from the wind especially when I was exposed to the elements on the top of Ivinghoe Beacon. The only thing I’d note is that the material is not very breathable (I don’t think any similar jackets are to be honest), as I ended up being soaked in my own sweat by the end of the race. I was also wearing my Hoka One One Speedgoat 2 trail Shoes which were super useful on the boggy trails. I firmly believe that investing into the right gear can play a big role in how well you do in a race. There is a great selection of trail running kit on Amazon and on the Ultramarathon Running Store website, both offering regular discounts, so these are my two go-to places for running kit these days.
The first few kilometres felt relatively easy as I was settling into a good pace. Quite unsurprisingly, there were plenty of hilly segments and very boggy bits that did slow me down later, but did not take away from my enjoyment of the beautiful scenery and the challenges that the varied terrain and landscape presented. I did recognise some of the woodland trails and paths alongside the golf course which I had run in Ashridge a couple of years ago in June, during the Ashridge Half Marathon, in aid of the Rennie Grove Hospice.
Like I pointed out before, the route was following the boundary of the estate, but with one major deviation – on the final stretch we headed up to the top of the iconic Ivinghoe Beacon hill, which, under nicer conditions, would have been the climax of the event….However, the winds got so strong up there that I was having trouble breathing; I had to resort to pulling the hood of my windbreaker jacket sideways to my face to get some protection against the wind that was literally taking my breath away. I was trying to zig-zag my way up to the top, and was almost forced to come down on all fours a few times – the wind was definitely winning against me! I must have lost about 10 minutes on Ivinghoe Beacon, as a result of my battle with the gale force winds. To keep our battered spirits high, there was a team of marshalls waiting for us at the top, cheering us on and giving us the ‘hero-treatment’. I have to admit, I did feel like Wonder Woman having hauled my butt up there in such gruelling conditions. Huge kudos to the volunteers whose enthusiasm did not falter under these extreme circumstances!
After leaving behind Ivinghoe Beacon, I was starting to feel very heavy-legged, but somehow managed to find some hidden reserves in my tank on the final mile to pick up the pace again for a sprint finish. Eventually, I managed to cross the finish line in just under 3 hours which was my target time. The best thing is that all finishers were treated to free hot drinks and a selection of scrumptious home made cakes. Having sweet teeth, it is a definite incentive for me to return again next year, rain or shine (or even snow)! Instead of a finishers’ medal, we all received a cute green ‘elf beanie’ as a memento. I thought that having something practical like this as a finishers’ token was a great idea – personally, I just end up putting away my medals into a drawer after my races, and then completely forget about them later!
There are only two things I would change about this event. The weather was awful on the day of this event in the past couple of years, which may not be so surprising – after all, March is a capricious month in the UK when you may be in for anything from hailstorms to blizzards to record-breaking rises in temperature. Therefore, it would be nice to have this event later during the year (April or May) when runners are less likely to feel so savaged by extreme weather conditions and have a more pleasant experience. Secondly, it would be nice to have some photos done during the race; the scenery is breathtaking and the photos would definitely draw more interest from runners to attend this event!
What kind of kit can’t you live without when running longer trail races?