Wendover Woods 50 mile ultra, November 16th 2019
Wendover Woods is a beautiful place.
A scenic natural woodland in the Chilterns with lots of lovely dips and hollows. Deer roam freely in the unspoilt woods and squirrels scurry about everywhere as squirrels do.
It compares very favourably to High Lodge in Thetford with mountain bikers flocking to the woods to blast away on the trails and Go Ape at the top set next to a pretty decent café where you can have a cappuccino while your kids run themselves ragged on the adventure trails.
Idyllic, pretty and a dog walker’s paradise. A totally lovely place.
So why do I find myself swearing I will never come back? Read on and I’ll tell you why…
Firstly, I need to put this in context…a year ago I watched as Karen Doak and Janice Coglin-Hibbert set off to Wendover and became the first Tri-Anglians to complete this race, and I listened to their tales of how hard it was and how hilly it was as they reeled off the names of some of the hills on the course. ‘The snake’, ‘Gnarkin About’, ‘Railing in the years’ ,’The boulevard of broken dreams’. It all sounded pretty epic and they had just scraped inside the cut offs having had a pretty emotional and tough race by all accounts. I’d never done a race that sounded as hard as that and I felt a teeny bit jealous…You know what I mean don’t you? The kind of jealousy that only deranged idiots get.
Secondly, I’m an idiot.
So I booked it.
Nobody pressured me. It was all voluntary.
What a twat!
So here are the facts. It’s about 50 miles (‘about’ meaning more than 50, only a little bit but enough), it’s hilly (3000 metres + of climbing), it’s 5 laps in woods, it’s 99% trail. You have 15 hours to complete it. That meant that the cut offs were 3 hours per lap. That’s 3 hours for each 10 mile lap…easy peasy. Yeah right!
Here comes the catch. It’s held in November which means for most normal people you will run at least 2 of the 5 laps in the dark. It’s cold at this time of year and gets colder as it gets darker. The roots that you gleefully hop over in daylight turn into bloody great tree trunks that you trip over in the dark and the people that you were chatting to on laps 1,2 and 3 start to thin out on laps 4 and 5 as it becomes a quiet and slow death march to the finish.
You thought the Ironman shuffle was bad, you should try this for a laugh. God only knows how people manage to do two or three times this distance, they clearly aren’t normal.
So how did my race go?
Lap 1: ignorance is bliss, every step was new. The sun was out, the woods were beautiful, the hills were ok. Janice popped up as I was going up the hill under Go Ape and lobbed a pine cone at me. Normal stuff. 1hr 58 minutes for lap 1, quick bite of melon and out to lap 2. No way near as bad as people made out. 10 miles in the bag and feeling pretty good.
Lap 2: quite an enjoyable lap, it takes a slightly different route from lap 1 for the first mile and then it’s the same. Still dry, still bright. Beautiful descent into the field and then used my poles to good effect to overtake quite a few people on the steeper hills on the second half of the lap. Eating well, drinking well, feeling good. Lap 2 done in 2hrs 13 mins. 4hrs 10 in total. On track. Melon, coke, cup of tea, picked up my headtorches from my drop bag (mandatory after 1.30) and out again. Janice popped out on her bike and said she’d see me on lap 3.
Lap 3: Legs ok, head still ok, feeling pretty positive. Starting to get a bit fed up of the first half of the lap as it’s not as interesting as the second half and way more difficult to picture in your head. This was starting to get to me. Little things….finished the lap in good shape. 2hr 20 for this lap. 6hrs 30 on the clock. (2hrs 30 inside the cut off)
Lap 4: twilight, just getting a bit dark, still light enough to go without a headtorch for the first 40 minutes of the lap. Then it got dark. They say it gets hard in the dark and so it does. I couldn’t put my finger on it but I didn’t feel great. I hadn’t seen anyone since I left the main marquee at the end of the last lap (apart from marshals) and it was awfully quiet. I was craving company. I hadn’t seen Janice on lap 3, she just missed me and it takes over an hour to get to the feed station at the 5 mile point. It couldn’t come soon enough. If just for a bit of chat. I left the feed station feeling ok(ish), then about 20 minutes later I had an overwhelming urge to drop out. Just to stop. What’s the point of all this? It was no longer just physical, I just didn’t know what to do. I ate something, still felt shit. Drank something, same. I was in a bit of a hole. I trudged on , telling myself to get up the steepest of the hills (Gnarkin About) which Karen had christened something much ruder the previous year and I would then be on the last bit of the lap. I climbed the hill but at the top I felt the weakest I had all day. Then out of the woods I heard a penny whistle and ‘Oi Burgess’. Yes, you guessed it. She was back and for the first time on that lap I had company (except for marshals) and we chatted til the end of the lap. Despite all that misery I still managed 2hrs 30 for the lap. Total time 9hrs (3hrs inside the cut off)
Lap 5: I asked if Janice wouldn’t mind coming round with me a bit just for morale if anything, and about 10 minutes in I asked if the weather had changed because it was becoming misty. She said no. That’s when I knew I’d lost the vision in my left eye again. What a time for it to happen. Then steadily I started to lose the vision in my right eye as well but thankfully much slower than my left so I at least could see down and out to the right but nothing straight on or up and to the left. This was making things kind of tricky in the dark with a headtorch. On the straight paths I could guess where I was going and run a bit but on the technical bits with twisty descents and tree roots it was becoming a bit ridiculous. At least it took my mind off the pain and hills etc. When I got to the feedstation at halfway I could see very little indeed and had to be guided back onto the right path. I think I ate some melon but it could have been anything really. I had 2 cups of tea and then had to ask one of the marshals to turn my headtorch on as I couldn’t tell which way up it was. (I have a habit of taking it off at feed stations). After that I only had 5 miles to go and despite not much vision I felt in pretty good spirits as I knew that I had bags of time to finish. My only concern was getting to the end safely as there are some pretty big tumbles if you get it wrong. Suffice to say I made it to the end. 2hrs 55 for the last lap. Total time was about 11hrs 58 .
I finished 92nd out of about 250 with approximately 50 people not finishing or timed out. I was handed a massive medal that I couldn’t see and a T shirt (that I have since found out is too small) and had my photograph taken (I think I was looking the right way but I really couldn’t tell). I plonked myself gingerly in a chair and ate some pasta (so I am told) that tasted of cheese and was absolutely lush. After a while I got changed and was guided back to my car. Thank God I didn’t have to drive because I couldn’t see and it was at least another 4 or 5 hours before my sight returned.
Well that was that. I’d done it.
There are tougher things out there like walking over lego for 12hrs or eating dry Weetabix without a drink but I reckon this is a bit of a beast. It knocks everything else I’ve done into a cocked hat.
If you fancy something a bit special. Give this a crack. Don’t let me put you off. It’s there to be done. Where’s the fun in doing easy stuff all the time. Challenge yourself a bit it’s good for you.
What’s with the eye thing I hear you say? It’s just dry eye, doesn’t sound much but it’s a pain when it happens. I have had it before and had to be rescued just the once when I got lost in Thetford Forest on my bike. All better now.
Special thanks to Janice, she’ll support anyone doing anything. She’s a bit bonkers like that. I am not sure I would have had the mental toughness to finish without a bit of a boost on lap 4 , so massive thank you for that.
Onwards and upwards. More adventures beckon.