Marlborough Downs Challenge 33 Miles – 10/5/2015
The Marlborough Downs Challenge passes through 33 miles of stunning Wiltshire countryside. The taxing route takes in 3000 feet of ascent, crosses chalk downland, prehistoric trails and the two highest points in Wiltshire.
My mates Robbie and Tim, and my brother Ed were also running. After spending the previous day celebrating nephew Sam’s 8th birthday with swimming, pizza and an exhaustion-related tantrum, we assembled at the start in Marlborough. The element ‘marl’ in the town’s name allegedly refers to the chalk hills in the immediate vicinity, although place-name specialists say otherwise – early forms like Mærle beorg possibly meaning something like ‘Mærle’s hill’. Either way, it is a pleasure to run in this unique rolling chalk landscape and as we stood in the grounds of Marlborough College, under the shadow of the Preshute White Horse I looked forward to what I hoped would be a pleasant day out. Robbie, who had played 80 minutes of rugby league the previous day, and Ed looked to be in a similar state of mind, while Tim, who was on the threshold of his first ultra, was doing a brilliant impression of somebody entirely un-phased by the proceedings.
As we made our way out of Marlborough, my brother was accosted by somebody who asked ‘if he was the bloke who looks like Vladmir Putin who ran the Fellsman?’ Ed pointed the enquirer in my direction, much to everyone else’s amusement. I get mistaken for Polish quite a lot, but this was my first Putin-a-like.
We moved into the beautiful West Woods, carpeted with bluebells, and on into Gopher Wood, reeking of wood-garlic, before making our way onto the Wansdyke Path overlooking the Pewsey Downs. The Wansdyke is a 46 mile raised defensive earthwork dating from the 6th century and built off the back of a huge amount of human – probably slave – labour. As my brother, his friend Jill from Cirencester AC and I, laboured along it in a much more recreational and modern way, we took in the views and probably enjoyed ourselves a lot more than the people who built it.
After seven or eight miles I had to stop to attend to some sore feet. It became clear that forgetting my running socks and opting instead for cheap Sports Direct gym socks was a huge tactical mistake. My feet were on fire and as there wasn’t much I could do about it I just did my laces up and gritted my teeth.
I pushed on to make up the two minutes Ed and Jill had made on me as we left the Wansdyke. We descended to Bishop’s Canning and the Avon and Devizes canal for several miles of hard towpath running. Not good if you have blisters, but great if you like wildlife and canal boats. In the past this has seemed like a long stretch but I think that depends on how quickly you attack the canal. I think we were doing 7.30 miles as opposed to the seven-minute miles I did a few years ago which, ironically, took forever.
We hit the just-under-halfway checkpoint at Devizes in around 2 hours 20. A sub five hour finish was on the cards. Coming out of Devizes there is an almost immediate assault on Roundway Hill which in the past has done for me. Today we got to the top unscathed and headed through the Leipzig Plantation and then back down towards checkpoint five where Jill was told she was 2nd lady. This was Jill’s first attempt at the race and her main concern was navigation, which my brother was providing. Discovering that she was so high up the ladies’ field provided extra stimulus to kick on.
We pushed up hill again in the direction of the Cherhill monument and White Horse. At this point I stopped for an unsatisfactory, dehydrated pee. As I came to terms with my stupidity in not drinking enough, and not wishing to jeopardise Jill’s chance of a podium finish, I bade she and Ed to press on without me.
I only stopped for a minute, but it was long enough to lose sight of them. I ran on my own from Cherhill Down, on towards Avebury where upon arrival at the corner of the village and greeted with the imposing sight of two Sarsen stones I had a complete blank about whether to turn left or right. Luckily a runner from the 20-mile route appeared, thus eliminating one of the two options. Relieved, I picked up my feet again and headed into the penultimate checkpoint at Avebury. I had under an hour to cover seven miles and some big hills if I was going to get near to five hours so I trotted on, hoping that if I kept up the pace from mile 26-30 I could surge the last three miles to the finish. I carried on through the village centre, itself at the centre of a stone circle, which is in turn orbitted by hundreds of tourists.
From Avebury there is a three mile climb up Fyfield Down which I am pleased to say I ran all of. This paid off as at the top I caught sight of Ed and Jill. From here I ran behind them all the way back into Marlborough Leisure Centre. But I never quite caught them, because by now, my feet were screaming at me. I finished in 5.16, just a minute behind them. I got a drink, sat down and peeled back my socks to reveal some cracking blisters. While happy with my 25th place finish I think I could have gone a bit faster if I had worn the right socks.
Jill finished as second lady. Robbie guided Tim around the first half of the course and then ran the second half on his own to finish in six hours. Tim made it around in seven. A grand day out.