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Attending an inaugural running event can be a dangerous thing, the route may not be fully tested, the organisation might not be quite as slick as when the event has been running a while and the atmosphere may be dampened by the attracting of fewer runners than a more established event…

Thankfully we then have the Hockley Trail Challenge which was blighted by none of the above, in fact I think it’s fair to say that this looped course deserves nothing but high praise and return visits! But let me rewind to 10 days before the race and recount another sorry tale from my personal pantheon of running tales.

I was recounting the story of the week before the Green Man Ultra in 2016 and how I’d been pushed into the road on New Bond Street and been hit by a car mere days before the Bristolian 45 miles. I joked that I hoped that didn’t happen again, it seemed however, that fate is a cruel mistress and as I was bounding along New Bond Street a plethora of tourists refused to get out of my way and I was forced into the road, pulling a muscle in my calf as I landed awkwardly.

Boom! Lightning can strike twice.

I hobbled home and almost immediately cancelled my 49 mile Milton Keynes to London run and sat for hours with the TENS machine and the bastard rumble roller I own – there was Hockley Woods to get ready for! I decided rest was the order of the week and reduced my running to the bare minimum did nothing over the weekend and managed to see my physiotherapist the day before the event (never ideal). Anyway patched up and rested I rolled up to Hockley Woods in good spirits and a desire to have an amble round a new location.

By the time I arrived at 8.30 a few runners had congregated round the registration but many were hiding in their cars avoiding a pre-race soaking. Number collection was swift and smooth and I ran into Cherie and her husband who I met at the Ridgeway last year and we exchanged banter about our various abilities to do directions!

I soon returned to the family who had decided to join me so that the hound and the GingaNinja could get a few miles round the woods in before departing for a morning of trampolining pre-race UltraBaby and I bounded round on the Unirider chasing ThunderPad and the GingaNinja. However runners were soon called over for a short but useful race briefing and we all lined up for six hours of trail shenanigans!

I took up my customary position at the back of the course but as the start was called I quickly made my way forward through the other eventers, quickly catching the front four or five runners and settling into a very pleasant stride.

As I often do on looped events I look for markers and note conditions underfoot so as to try and see where problems, challenges or faster sections will occur later in the race and this one the course was replete with challenging conditions, grinding up hills, gnarly trail and the odd speedy downhill.

I quickly realised that the use of the word challenge in the title was very appropriate.
Regardless I pressed onwards, enjoying the spray of mud that had erupted all over my legs and I thundered through the first lap in under 30 minutes despite the reasonably heavy rain. The second lap went in an even faster time despite a stop to speak to UltraBaby who had been chasing round the woods after runners and our Spaniel, when lap three dropped at a similar pace my thoughts turned to a sub 4 hour marathon time for the first time in ages and a little over 4 hours for the eight laps I had targeted.

I took a few minutes at the checkpoint to gather myself for another lap and then set out again, still making good time and looking at a little over 2hrs for the first four laps.

I was about halfway round lap 4 when I came across a horse riding teen, I’ll assume parent and dogs. Having been kicked by a horse in the past I know instinctively to give them a wide berth and I’d noted that the Collie looked nervous and I felt best I give it some space too. Sadly the dog decided to run between my legs and, in my efforts to avoid giving it a thoroughly good kicking, upended me – forcing me down badly and heavily on my groin.
I managed to hobble away, there was no word from the owner, an acknowledgement or even apology might have been nice but still. I knew I’d pulled something quite painfully and so felt around to see what was tense but it was just sore. I pressed in some thumbs and then moved on gingerly.

At this point I hoped I could run it off but all running was doing was aggravating it. I stopped periodically to stretch my leg out which would give a minute or two of relief but the Hockley Trail Challenge as a race, for me, was over.

I moved into the fifth lap looking grim faced and eventually telephoned the GingaNinja asking for advice, however, having already decided that I wasn’t going to give up I pushed on despite her wise words. I found myself now being overtaken and in some cases lapped which simply irritated me but there was nothing for it I had made my decision and you don’t DNF the marathon distance when you’re so close to home.

Thankfully I was still managing to run some sections of each loop which kept both my sanity intact and my timings reasonable given the pain I was in and I was fortunate to meet some lovely people as I ambled along (most notably Joe, a lovely, hardcore ultra running chap from Tipperary!) who provided excellent distractions.

Reaching the eighth lap I stopped at the checkpoint for a few minutes and ate some chocolate raisins, looking longingly at the medals, thinking ‘I should have had one of those hours ago’. But with these thoughts put out of mind I pushed on for one last go round Hockley Woods. With the rain long behind us, the sun out and the knowledge that I was less than 6km from finishing I continued to run/walk these last few steps.

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As a very pleasant surprise though my little daughter UltraBaby was waiting for me a couple of hundred feet from the finish line (thanks to the lovely volunteers for the picture). She jumped out to ‘scare’ me as she is prone to do and then joined me for those final metres. We bimbled towards the finish as UltraBaby told me we were racing and we crossed the line to much applause from the amazing volunteers. Sadly for me UltraBaby stole the medal, little sodding monster – thankfully only one of us ended up coated in mud and it wasn’t her!

Key points

  • Distance: 5.5(ish)km loops
  • Profile: Undulating
  • Date: March 2017
  • Location: Hockley Woods, Essex
  • Cost: £30
  • Terrain: Muddy trail
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route
The route was much harder than I had imagined, hillier than I was expecting and conditions on the ground and the lapped nature of the course meant it got cut up pretty quickly. That being said once the rain stopped and the runners thinned out the course quickly returned to being more runnable for the most part. In truth despite the hills and mud this was a good running course with more than enough interest to sustain you for as many laps as you can manage. Hockley Woods looks like a really good training ground and if you’re local I’d recommend banging a few miles out.

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Organisation
The organisation was brilliant, the route was well marked, there were photographers and floating volunteers on the route and the checkpoint was well manned, well stocked and well protected for any gear that we had left behind. The volunteers were always on hand to provide the wrist bands to count our laps and there was always a lot of love and cheers as you rocked up to the checkpoint.

Awards
Medal and goody bag. The medal was big, heavy and has a fun feeling to it, the goody bag had Maltesers in (and other stuff) and that’s more than good enough for me. The real award though was the event and I think this was the general feeling from the runners I spoke to during the day.

Value for money
£30 seems like a very fair amount for a race this well organised.

I saw a Facebook post that suggested that £30 was too much but actually look at what you’re getting. A glorious loop on a glorious course with a big bespoke medal, an incredibly well stocked aid station/checkpoint and a really good atmosphere all supported by a wonderful team of volunteers who never stopped smiling. I’ll put it like this, I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less (I’m thinking East London half marathon and even the Royal Parks Half Marathon).

Conclusion
The Ranscombe Challenge (read the review here) has always held a special place in my heart as my favourite ‘laps’ marathon/ultra but the Hockley Trail Challenge has replaced it. I know that my experience was marred by getting injured but that doesn’t detract from the brilliance of this event. I would highly recommend running it’s a great experience and I know that I for one will at some point be back to add an ultra amount of laps to marathon amount of laps!

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I was doing some blog maintenance over the last few days and it occurred to me that a number of the races I’ve done don’t appear as UltraBoyRuns because that was a creation to replace my confused original blogging identity.

Therefore I’m returning to some of my older races and the original reports (with a hint of editing and hindsight) and we start with my first ultra marathon – the one and only Running of the White Cliffs 50(54)(60).

This is what I wrote of the experience;

There is nothing that can prepare you for going Ultra.

I woke up on Saturday morning worried about my first ultra, training hadn’t gone that well and my ankle had been pretty screwed for the past ten days. My kit was too heavy, I didn’t have nearly enough sweeties and I figured I was going to come last but I’d at least then have 2 UTMB points in the bag and a beautiful new medal.

I was up about 5, showered, ready and out the door by 6. The start line was about an hour away and by the time I was sat in the car with the GingaNinja and good old ThunderPad only one thing hadn’t been completed and that was the morning ‘movement’ which for any distance runner is vital but I was hoping that the facilities at the start line would be sufficient (and they were).

We arrived at the hall and I introduced myself to a couple of runners, registered with Mike Jones, the race director and I received the first surprise of the day – no kit check – something I had anguished over for several days, especially the content of my first aid kit. Anyway, I helped myself to a cup of tea and passed on the delicious looking bacon sandwiches (I noticed The GingaNinja grabbed a sly one).

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The race briefing was excellent and the race director seemed to be fully in control of everything that was going on – but in fairness most people seemed to be pretty experienced ultra or at least marathon runners and everyone was just getting ready. There was a real buzz about the place, I got the feeling I was going to like the ultra running community.

The 100 milers set off (about 25 runners) an hour earlier than the shorter distance runners and the 50 milers used this time to prepare themselves – however, I used the time to glean as much information as I could about endurance running on a very cold winters day carrying about 20kg of Sainsbury’s all butter flapjacks. At the back of the start I said goodbye to my crew and set off with the field of about 55 other runners. I had my GPS switched on and my route description in hand and I decided that the best way to get through this was quickly as possible without compromising my ability to finish.

Fast and strong was to be my mantra.

Ah wait … the first problem of the race then showed itself almost immediately – the directions. Within 400metres more than 20 of the runners had gone the wrong way, myself included and we needed to swiftly change tack, head back and hit the thick wet, filthy slope down. I hit the floor a couple of times and covered myself in crap. I had to steady myself on the barb wire fencing more than once and I realised very quickly that this really wasn’t a race, it was an opportunity to survive a race. All the competitors walked the first kilometre or so before we finally hit flat and dry.

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Once there I was in good form, infact very good form, I’d warmed up nicely and felt strong – possibly from not having done any running for a week.

The first 6 miles were full of small innocuous hills and therefore runners hit pretty swift time and most came into the first checkpoint in good spirits, myself included. Grabbing a jaffa cake and quick word with crew was it and I pretty much setting off into stage 2.
Upon arrival at the White Horse of Kent it became even more abundantly clear that this was a tough challenge and despite my energies I had to walk up some of the hill but on reaching the top I returned to moving at a fair pace – noting that there was a trail of runners behind me but I rounded the next hill at full pace and then banged out a swift walk up a nasty tarmac hill and great views of Ashford.

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The run was pretty simple for a while, taking in the wonderful White Cliffs of Dover and several other lovely sights (including my beloved Spaniel) 1 – I was having a great time really and then it happened, the thing that has blighted my running! Stupidity. At about 14 miles my good ankle got rolled over a rock, while I was titting and that was pretty much it.
I contemplated calling it a day at about 18 miles but the lovely Rich from the Harvel Runners (and several others) reminded me that pain is temporary. I therefore increased my pace, hit the aid station and decided to get out of my Merrell Glove and change into my Vibram FiveFinger Komodo. On reflection nearly four years later I wonder how foolhardy this was. It felt like I’d broken something and my thinking was that my barefoot fivefingers would spread my toes and allow my most natural movement. I could also race through icy puddles and keep my foot and ankle effectively ‘on ice’ for the remaining 35 odd miles

I knew that I would have my own crew awaiting me at 38.1 miles, if I could make it this far I would be able to decide if I had enough in me for the last 15 miles – there is a lot to be said for having someone you know at an aid station with a smile on their face.

Stage 3 – 5 were filled with lots of route problems, the directions really weren’t up to the task and a course that was hugely challenging – especially with an ankle that was starting to look like it might be fractured but I’d buddied up with a guy called Chris who was also running his first ultra, add to this Anne-Marie, who was looking for her 2 points towards the UTMB and I had the perfect running pals, the three of us passed through the up and downhills of the next couple of stages.

By the time we hit stage 5 the cold had set in, as had the darkness, the delays had meant that this was a much tougher course than anyone had actually imagined – most now thinking 12 hours for a finish and upon leaving the Stage 5 aid station and into Stage 6 we knew that we were still looking good for a 9.30pm- ish finish and then even more problems cropped up.

We just got lost.

The description and the GPS couldn’t agree – when it would connect, but we were also now in a wooded area with no exit having crossed difficult uneven terrain in the dark. With a little effort we threw ourselves across half a dozen barb wire fences and managed to avoid the river (although why bother when we had run through so much icy water already!).
We arrived to the final checkpoint at about 8.50pm, knowing that most of the final 14km stage would have to be walked given that we were all exhausted and pretty much mentally gone and what little running we were going to do would be slow.

More directional issues followed, especially around the golf course and the BT tower where runners were coming at one another from all directions and chaos briefly ensued. But with renewed resolve and grit we were convinced we were on the right path and having met some of the other runners we could throw ourselves towards the finish line. 6 of us blundered through muddy fields and sheep, defying the pain we all felt.

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Fast walking had become the order of the day but when we crossed the final gate to the road up to the finish and the village I knew I had less than 10 minutes to get my two UTMB points. My foot was in agony and it was only the thought of not finishing that spurred me on But my lack of long distance experience and general gusto meant I did what I do best – my sprint finish and I gave it my all. I tore into the car park and through the doors of the village hall looking up at the wall mounted clock, 54 minutes past the hour – 6 minutes of the fifteen hours allocated to spare. I collected my medal, collected my T shirt and suddenly every ounce of pain and every tear I had been holding back flooded out. I sat on a chair opposite one of the runners and we stared vacantly at one another. The quiet though was broken by the sound of the doors to the village hall crashing open once more and my companions for many, many miles collapsed in – all making the cut-off.

We should have run just over 53 miles but I know that I just completed just under 60 miles with all the extras that were done. But I had completed my first ultra marathon and it would set me on a road that I have never once regretted.

What an experience.

 

Key points

  • Distance: 54 miles (ended up being 60 miles after various route issues)
  • Profile: Rolling hilly
  • Date: March 2013
  • Location: Kent
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 3.5/5
  • Next running: now defunct

Route
Kent, the Garden of England does not have some of the amazing drama of say Scotland or the Lake District but it is much tougher than you might think and has hills aplenty as well as rivers to ford and challenges to face! The route for the WC50 was fun and engaging and the white cliffs themselves are a joy to run over, the whole thing though was ruined by incredibly poor directions and course marking

Organisation
When I ran this I had no frame of reference for how well organised an ultra should be. Mike Jones the race director was a seasoned and well organised man but he had failed to secure enough volunteers and this really showed as he bussed in people to the later aid stations who had no idea what they were supposed to do or even where they actually where. The worst part for a novice like myself was that the map book and course markings were incredibly poor and so I spent more time stood in fields trying to figure out where I was or watching GPX file on my less than ideal Garmin 410. The volunteers that did know what they were doing were brilliant and I have nothing but the highest praise for them – but it does say something that the GingaNinja as she was driving round the checkpoints felt the need to muck in and help the runners (she earned a volunteer t-shirt for her troubles!)

Support
Aid stations were well stocked with hotdogs available at one of the later ones – you really couldn’t complain about the food

Awards
Great medal, a favourite, lovely T-shirts (and still being worn).

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My Foot
I think the image below tells you all you need to know other than it was several weeks before I could return to running

Value for money
Great value for money, food, medals, cold, mud, hills – what more could you ask for? Well some decent directions would be nice but we did therefore get free miles and a free trip to the hospital to get my foot looked over

Conclusion
I feel for Mike Jones as the WC50 and all the other Ultra Trails (Saxon Shore) races failed to return for a second year. The single running of the WC50 was a tremendous if flawed race. I loved meeting some of the amazing ultra runners, many of whom I’ve kept in touch with and several of whom I’ve race alongside subsequently. I enjoyed the drama of the finish line race, I enjoyed the route, the challenge and most of all I loved becoming an  ultra runner. So thank you White Cliffs 50 for breaking my foot but putting my on the way to becoming a runner I’m actually quite proud of

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5.30am and an email arrives – the Dartford 10 miler is cancelled, 3 years I’ve been trying to run this, once I pulled out because of an injury and now twice it has been canceled and I haven’t been available for the re-scheduled date. The good news is that the race organiser made the right decision, the River Darent had broken it’s banks and the water, several days later, hadn’t drained.

Instead I did a very hilly 10 miles in a pretty healthy 1hr 17minutes. So no medal but a really positive run and I got to test my Salomon hydration belt, nice and easy to use and very comfy – though it gave me a seriously sweaty back.

I hope everyone else had a lovely sunny January run.

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