Wendover Woods 50 (WW50)
The ultra adventure continues with my first 50miler and Centurion event debut. The race was a lovely route of 5 x 10mile loops of Wendover woods with a tough 10,000ft of elevation (this is about the equivalent of running up fort regent 200times…). During the lead up to this race I had a few weeks to get my road marathon legs from October fit for the woods. I managed to fit in a few trail runs and a couple of hill repeats to try and prepare, as well as shaking off the flu in the weeks leading up to it.
On the Friday my dad and I made our way to Aylesbury where we found a pizza express for lunch before doing a quick recce to the start line for the next day at Trig point. With the weather being non-stop rain for the past month - it was looking overcast and dry for race day which was a huge relief. The Centurion page also said the woods drained well so I knew it wouldn’t be waterlogged (unlike our north coast at the moment).
With a later start this year at 9:30am instead of the usual 8am to avoid the Park Run, I knew this meant the last 2 loops would be in the pitch black! Being in the woods, there is no background light, just you and your head torch for the majority of the trail. Thankfully the amazing marshalls and other runners on the course made this seem fun and not daunting especially I hadn’t had a chance to practice running trails in the dark at all…
It was race day! After a cracking sleep in the Premier Inn, and my usual pre-race coffee and instant porridge, we headed down to Trig point for registration. With my mandatory kit all confirmed and bib number collected we stayed warm in the car whilst we got the last few things ready for the drop bag.
The race briefing began with James Elson (Centurion Running RD and Team GB 24hr Runner) setting the tone for the race to the 250 runners that braved their way to the start line. The weather was perfect for running with no sign of rain and the sun trying to fight its way through the low cloud.
Loop 1 - Here goes nothing!
I started the race with no expectations as I had no idea of the course layout or how technical or hilly it was going to be but I was feeling open minded and ready to tackle whatever came my way. The route was stunning and the woods very picturesque with the autumnal colours, leaves, trees, single trails and a gruffalo - what more could you want! I was trying to focus on where I was going to ensure I memorised the route well enough for later in the day should I find myself running alone, however there were markings at least every 100metres which was amazing and certainly made me feel a lot more relaxed.
I pushed quite hard for the first lap but not too hard that I regretted it - no one wins the race in the first lap as they say! The first half (5miles) to the Hale Lane checkpoint were more than fine and even included a lovely section across a field with some fun climbs (including one where I was literally on my hands and knees).
The second half of the loop was definitely the toughest of the two halves. First there was the aptly named “snake” climb, which was pretty steep and never ending. However the worst 2 hills were saved for the last mile of the loop but thankfully these were nowhere near as bad as I thought they were going to be. I think it helped that I knew it was going to be a tough course so I just took them as they came.
Overall, I found the course a lot more runnable than I expected with a few longer periods of downhill or slight uphill that were easier to run… at the start anyway!
Loop 2 - Just getting started
Still early days but I was feeling good. There was still a lot of speed in me and I was going quite hard in the hope I could maintain my early pace for as long as possible in the rest of the race. I had completely zoned out about my time or position and was just enjoying the experience.
From here I started drinking tailwind from the water stations alongside the water and gels, I have never tried tailwind before so it could’ve been risky but it didn't taste strong at all and I didn’t want to just be drinking water. I had no problems and it tasted nice! I also think it has electrolytes in it which really helps with hydration and I could feel it (even if it was a placebo effect).
On this loop I got chatting to a few people completing the ‘Grand Slam of 50s’, the WW50 being the last of the 4 Centurion 50 mile events organised throughout the calendar year. The Grand Slam runners are easily picked out as they are issued distinctive black bibs with white numbers which looked pretty cool. I love chatting to people in races to hear their journey and can learn from any advice they might have.
I finished this loop still feeling strong so didn’t spend too long at the food station but had a banana and went straight onto the third loop. At the end of lap 2 I was surprised to find myself in 4th place running alongside 3rd and 5th. The first two runners had opened a 10 minute gap.
Loop 3 - The caffeine hits/drops/hits again
The caffeine started to kick in and made me a bit shaky - this is what happens when you don’t have much caffeine and then over do it on race day. This made the first half of the loop even tougher than it should’ve been so I attacked the snacks at the halfway point and had a couple of peanut butter sandwiches whilst walking up the long hill with my 2 running companions, Charlie and Karin. When we got to the top they powered down the downhill and as much as I tried to keep up, I finally dropping back at my own pace again.
I started to really appreciate how pretty the landscape was, there was one view in particular that looked like a windows desktop background - very stunning.
Despite my more tentative approach to the downhills, I managed to end the 3rd lap just one minute behind Charlie and Karin.
Loop 4 - Where’d the sun go?
The start of loop 4 was going surprisingly well as I headed into 30+ mile territory, a place I have only been twice before in the Jersey based Trail Monkey ultras. My legs were however holding up much better than expected despite the sapping wood terrain.
Coming to about half way round the sun was starting to fade and people were getting out their head torches ready for the impending darkness. I started to feel a bit anxious about how dark it actually was. Although I knew I would be running in the dark I was surprised by how black the woods were and I’m not exaggerating to say you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. This was very disorientating in a wooded trail I wasn’t familiar with.
As a result, the second half of loop 4 was a lot slower for me. I ended up running alone for the last 5 miles but had a supportive text message from my best friend Al just at the right moment which helped get me through. This felt like the longest 5 miles of the course and it dragged on, mostly due to my reduced pace and lack of motivation to run up the slightest hill.
I finally got back to the Trig 40 mile check point determined that I wouldn’t psych myself out of what I knew would be another long lap in the dark. As I arrived in the tent some of the leading men had already finished the 50 miles and this motivated me to “getting it done”. My reduced pace had taken its toll and I was now 9 minutes behind Charlie in 6th place.
As I left the tent for the last time, I spotted a few runners just in front of me so put on a quick sprint to catch up and say hello. Some company on the last lap would certainly be welcome!
Loop 5 - Final Push...
The final loop was finally here. I started talking to a lovely man called Gary who very kindly let me run with him for the entire loop. Gary helped me push the pace and was continually checking I was ok. Even when I said to go on, he insisted on staying with me and this certainly helped both with my motivation and the darkness.
I learnt some great life lessons from Gary, who is in the military, and he was full of motivational updates as made progress: “that is the last time we see that hill” and “just think everywhere we go now will be the last time” are just a couple of the little gems he was throwing out into the darkness and helped me enormously.
Ultras are great like that for meeting inspiring people and hearing what they have to say, always interesting and inspiring.
We passed a few runners on their 3rd and 4th loops. I was full of admiration for all of these runners knowing how deep they would be digging with still another 10 or 20 miles to go, so amazing.
I kept digging deep until we made it to the last “hands and knees” hill - it was such a relief to get to the top for the 5th and final time. My watch hit 50miles but we were still about 2miles from home, which felt longer each loop. The last ½ mile is a loop around the field before the long stretch to the tent and the finish line. It was such a great feeling to be finally heading towards the floodlights on the home stretch.
It was finished, what a relief ! I felt I finished strong and mentally had more in the tank, although my legs definitely disagreed. This was the strongest I had felt at the end of my 3 ultras so far, which hopefully is a great sign of more to come!
My final position was 6th woman (passed in the last mile by the Centurion Grand Slam 100 mile champion) and I was really pleased even though my pace had slowed a lot due to the darkness, I was not alone.
My poor dad was relieved to see me back in one piece, after watching me running into the dark woods alone 2½ hours ago with no updates on my position. Thanks to David for travelling down from Milton Keynes and for helping out with the tracking and support. Best crew as always.
Always love to have my dad there and here's to more exciting weekends away in the future.
After having a fan girl moment and introducing myself to James (being a big fan of the podcast he does with Dan Lawson, 'British Ultra Running Podcast') we headed back for a well earned shower and good night's sleep!
Massive thank you to all the centurion team, marshalls, volunteers and fellow runners for a great day. I loved it for my first centurion event, will definitely be back for more in the near future!
Official time: 11:11:12 / 6th Woman
Total runners: 250
Did not finish (DFN): 50
Pilgrim Challenge 66 miles (33 miles x 2 days) February 2020