After the London Marathon 3 weeks ago, a fast 20 miler the weekend after, and 28 hilly, muddy miles on Monday, I was happy to drop my plan to run the Ridgeway 40 (RW40) both ways, as outlined in my crazy plan.
This year the RW40 was on 12th May, and was celebrating its 50th anniversary. I arrived at Overton Hill on the A4, the rather underwhelming western end of the Ridgeway National Trail, on Saturday, 25 minutes before the ‘runners start’, with my friends Ian trussler, Paul Byrne and Peter Cusick, together with Ian’s partner Lynne, who was there to see us off. In running terms, you couldn’t find a more disparate bunch:
- Ian is my main running buddy, a lover of rough, hilly and esoteric races, as well as the more mainstream stuff. I like Ian because he can be talked into just about anything, and so has joined me in some pretty extreme hill races (the llanbedr to Blaenafon fell race most recently) and a couple of ultras (the 2011 Ridgeway 40 and Ridgeway Challenge).
- Paul has been running for a few years now and has really developed as a runner. He has done many marathons, half marathons and shorter races, and several muddy, hilly trail races. He has been intrigued by ultras for a while now and had always wanted to go beyond 26 miles.
- Peter makes me look like a slacker. He can run a sub-3 hour marathon, is an excellent triathlete, is super fast on trails and runs ultras, the longest being the 145 mile Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR).
Lynne and Ian tried and failed to light the camping stove that had lit first time the night before. They had hot water in a flask and some rice pudding they’d heated up at home, and planned to get both properly hot in situ. As it was, we had cups of tea and sufficiently warm rice pudding; a good way to start the day.
It was sunny, but cool, verging on cold, with a bit of a breeze; a huge contrast to last year, when I stumbled into the start in stormy weather after running it the ‘wrong’ way overnight from Streatley, to be sheltered by Ian and Lynne in their car and given a good breakfast, ready to go back with Ian.
The Ridgeway 40 is a walking event that takes runners, not a race, although it’s probably pretty competitive at the ‘top end’. Peter was mildly surprised to learn we weren’t to be issued with numbers to pin to our fronts. Most of the entrants start at 8:00, but can set off any time until 8:30. Runners are supposed to set off at 8:30 so that they don’t get to the checkpoints before they open. All entrants have a tally card, which is signed by a marshall, who also records the time on it and their record sheet.
The runners bolted off bang on 8:30. Except for Ian, Paul and I: we were finishing off the rice pudding. That was the last we saw of Peter. He’s doing the GUCR again in three weeks time, and I’d tried to persuade him that a leisurely RW40 would give him more benefit for that than a quick one, but he had his sights on ‘sub 6’ and stuck to it.
My only plan was to stick with Paul and give him any support he needed to get to the finish. He’d ran the Manchester Marathon 2 weeks ago, had a tough time of it in terrible weather, and was feeling less than optimum as a result. Once we set off, a couple of minutes late, Paul, Ian and I soon started catching the slowest walkers and one slower runner, Glynn, who was running in Huarache sandals, earning him instant kudos with me.
I ran with Paul and Ian, at a pretty reasonable pace , except if we hit a steeper slope, where I would pull away from them a bit so I could take photos and then wait for them. We got to the first check point (CP), Barbury Castle at 7 miles, pretty easily: there are 9 CPs on the RW40, so the average gap is only 4 miles. The RW40 cuts a corner off the national trail just after CP1, which makes the route more direct, but cuts out the beautiful Smeathe’s Ridge as well as the rather scrappy trails on the north-east of Ogbourne St George.
The short-cut crosses the wide valley that carries the A346 south to Marlborough, and the national trail is rejoined on the ridge at the other side. It’s easy to carry on straight over instead of turning left back onto the RW, which a woman entrant would have done if I’d not been sat on the junction taking photos and put her right: I’d been told that one year several entrants had turned right and ended up back at Barbury Castle, adding something like 8 miles onto their route!
Back on the RW proper, Paul was starting to show the strain: the distance we’d covered thus far was within his experience, but not over that kind of terrain. I started a relentless stream of encouragement, sometimes bordering on lies (“Fairies will meet you at the next checkpoint to lift and carry you onward.”) to keep his spirits up and, as much as anything, distract him from his discomfort and fatigue. CP3 at Foxhill (14.5 miles) was the first point at which he started to talk about dropping out, but a bit of rest and food, and the thought that the next CP wasn’t that far, was enough to keep him going.
At the next 2 CPs, we fell into a pattern of Paul pretty much deciding to drop out, then him getting a bit of food and rest, and me persuading him to keep going. The best parts were when we lost ourselves in conversation and the country just rolled by. Ian had headed off by this stage: he’d struggled to keep his pace down to match ours, which can be surprisingly difficult, and I encouraged him to cut loose. Sometime around 25 miles Paul told me that he intended to drop out at CP6 (28 miles) and that I should push on, and I knew from his tone that he wouldn’t be dissuaded. I headed off, happy in the knowledge that his was pleased with the thought of having run further than he ever had, and on a hilly trail.
I was really looking forward to CP6, as it was the legendary ‘tea & cakes’ CP. When I got there, sure enough there was a good selection of cakes, including professionally made ’50th anniversary’ cup cakes and banana loaf made with cardamon. I stayed there long enough for Paul to roll in, pretty wrecked, but also happy to have joined the ‘ultra club’.
Once I’d had several cakes and flapjacks, plus 2 cups of tea, I made ready to head off, determined to hit the remainder steadily, if not hard, without taking any more ‘long’ breaks at the CPs. I said a slightly sad goodbye to the CP6 crew, who had decided to retire from this annual duty, having done it for quite a few years. I also met Alan Smith, the RW40 director there, and thanked him, as he too is ‘retiring’ after many years. I wonder what will happen to this lovely event in the future?
It was good to pass walkers for the last time, having ‘yoyoed’ with them for several hours, running past them, then seeing them again as I rested with Paul.
The weather had been ideal through the day; sunny with some cloud and a cool breeze. By this time, the breeze seemed to have died down a little, and I took my long-sleeved top off and was running in my new, rather excellent Patagonia Capilene ‘tank top’ (as they call it), a light stretchy singlet which has one crucial quality: it’s long enough to tuck into my shorts and not bunch under my rucksack waist-belt. It’s also worth mentioning my Merrell Trail Gloves, which were a joy to use, even over such a long distance.
Inevitably, I was feeling the strain by this point, and just wanted to be finished. I hammered along pretty relentlessly, but still took the time to chat to a few walkers and have a few biscuits at the last CP.
I saw Ian, who had finished about 2 hours earlier, just before I got to the finish at Streatley Youth Hostel. We were all taking advantage of the frequent, relatively cheap train service back to Chippenham to get home, and Peter and Paul (who had been driven to the finish) had both gone.
To add insult to injury, the finish of the RW40 is in an annexe of the YH, up its steep drive and a few steps, which seen very taxing by this stage. I handed my tally card in and enjoyed the laid-on nibbles and camaraderie of the finishers.
Peter was actually the first to finish, in 5:50, which would have been 5:48 if he’d been able to find the annexe a bit quicker! Ian finished in about 8:40, which he was very pleased with. I finished in about 10:40, and obviously hadn’t done the event to get a ‘time’, and so was pretty happy too.
I’ll ‘watch this space’ with interest (and a little worry) to see how the Ridgeway 40 evolves (survives?) as Alan hands the reins over. It’s a great event; long may it continue.