MALVERN HILLS ULTRA
54miles (4000ft) in 8hr9mins
The Malvern Hills Ultra was a big target for me this year. A little too close to the London Marathon for my liking and imposing on Ironman training but after my enjoyment of the Brecon Beacons Ultra in November I really had an urge to do another Ultra in the spring.
I’d picked up a slight foot injury from the London Marathon that was a bit unsettling in the lead-in to the race. I get compressed nerve pains sometimes along the top of the left foot and I’d obviously tied my Newtons too tightly in the London Marathon. This eased off and the rest of the taper didn’t go too badly apart from the usual feeling of lethargy that an A-race week brings. My parents and girlfriend were both present at this event so I really wanted to perform well. I’d heard that three marathon-winning Ethiopians had entered the race although I was also aware that fast marathon running Africans do not necessarily make fast ultra trail/mountain runners, so was interested to see what would happen to them on the day.
I’d set myself quite a high target-time based on my pace at the Beacons Ultra and my recce of the course back in March. Last years winning time was 9hr20min, but I thought I could go under 8hrs if everything went well and there were no navigational errors. To break the race up and make it a bit more interesting I’d worked out some target times for each Checkpoint(CP) to pace to.
On race day I felt quite relaxed. Having already recced most of the course and having the Garmin tracker to guide me was a great help. This would ensure I wouldn’t get completely lost on the day. The rest of my gear had already been prepared and I had managed to keep weight to a minimum with the race req, basic first aid, map and waterproof top. I’d put all this in my tiny Raidlite Olmo5 backpack along with a Karimor waist belt (holding nutrition and painkillers) to put on later in the race. In my hand I had a rolled-up (waterproof) map of the course and my punch-card. As part of the race we had to get the punch-card punched at several placess on the course – a nice idea to stop people straying from the route, intentionally or not. Every punch-point(PP) missed meant a 10min penalty added to your overall time.
The 83M race (and 54M walkers) started at 6am, with our race three hours later. I expected to pass some of these runners and walkers at some point when the courses converged around 28miles. After the normal pre-race registration routines we all lined up outside Holt Castle at 9am just as the rain kicked-in. There was no sign of the Africans, perhaps the weather had put them off. At the gun a small bunch formed at the front and I got chatting to a relay team member. He was alternating checkpoint legs with another runner (driving inbetween) which sounded like a great plan, and he was soon iff the front once we navigated our way through the first few miles. Indeed, after just 400m we all came to a shuddering halt and the maps came out. I couldn’t believe we were unsure of a route already although I wasn’t going to say anything because I was relying on other people until we got past Worcester anyway! After a couple of miles we rounded a village church and headed down to the Severn Way alongside the river. The next 4 miles would have been great if it wasn’t for the rain beating down on us. I enjoyed the company of two accomplished ultra runners (Ryan and Kevin). Considering the navigational checks, gates, styles and rough ground we’d kept up a consistent pace of 7:45-7:55/M. On a flat piece of road we’d have been around 7:15/M. It didn’t concern me at the time that this was a faster pace than the start of the Beacons Ultra and I had further to run, as I felt quite comfortable. What did worry me was how cold and wet I was having chosen a tight-fitting summer top over a HH thermal.
We followed a slightly different route to 2010 because of building work along the river in Worcester. We now had to stay on the right side of the river, crossing a mile further down for Checkpoint 1. We had run around 7.5M at this point and just under 1 hour. I refilled one of my 750ml bottles with water and moved up a gear…
Nutrition: The plan was 750ml+ of liquid and 350cals per hour. I had 2 x 750ml bottles at the front of my Olmo backpack (left with straw). I started with 750ml and 100cal electrolytes in the left and 900cal of gels and a little water in the right. This (along with a few tit-bits from CP2 and CP3) would see me through cals to 4hrs @ CP3. I would then take out the Karimor waist belt and add salt tablets to water, take any painkillers if required and sip from another (200ml) bottle holding 500cals of gel, as well as a pouch of gel sweets (200cal). There was a spare energy bar (200cal) if needed, but I intended grabbing the odd slice of malt loaf and/or flapjack as I left each Checkpoint to make up the cals. I’d learnt to keep cal intake to a minimum.
The section between Worcester (CP1) and Severn Stoke (CP2) was a pleasant, albeit muddy 9 mile stretch of open fields along the Severn bank. Despite the great company I decided to up the pace a bit and break free, it was a race afterall. The first PP came along about half a mile before CP2. It involved stamping my card with something not to disimilar to a large stapler that was attached to a piece of hardboard. I also passed my first walker at this point who was in good spirits. I looked back to get an idea of who might be behind me but didn’t see anyone in the field. At the hotel car park (CP2) I headed straight for the water bottles and topped up, grabbing a few small pieces of flapjack while my number was taken. The lady marshal was very friendly and, like the marshals further down the course seemed a little surprised I was so keen to get moving without taking on any extra food. I took about 90secs in total but I felt like I’d wasted a lot more than that. I met one of the relay runners here who said he’d see me later in the race (didn’t happen!) and then passed Ryan and Keith on the way out. They were around 2mins behind.
I’d been using a newish pair of Inov-8 roclite shoes for the race. I’d ran in them a few times and they seemed roomy but with a good fit. A few concerns over hill running and damage to toe nails but overall they handled the race very well even when wet. I had no blisters, but a little of what seemed like shoe glue had surfaced at the back of the right heel and for the first half of the race had worked it’s way through my sock creating a nice little hole. I stopped to apply a compeed @CP4 which did the trick, although it managed to work through that as well by the finish. Overall the shoes were great – what I lost in comfort on the road section was more than made up for in response and grip on the trails, hills.
CP2 to CP3 is the longest section of the race at 12miles. From Severn Stoke the route takes you back along the grassy banks of the river Severn, over the bridge at Upton and then along several roads to the Malvern Hills and the Hotel beneath the Herefordshire Beacon. The weather started improving at this point. I was still wet and cold but hoped to dry once the sun came out. I darted through Upton getting a few strange looks from the locals, and tried to bring my pace up. It was difficult to get any quicker than 7:45/M at this point and my legs were already stiffening up and getting tired. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t even halfway or had reached the Malvern Hills and I was already stiffening up. But of course in reality I’d just run a marathon over varying terrain @ 7:50/M (exc CP/PP) so I guess a little stiffness was to be expected! Mile 27 involved the gradual climb to the start of the Malvern range at Berrow Downs.
It then kicked up even more to the first 300m+ hill peaks and my legs started screaming. I tried hard to keep running but had to incorporate a few strides at times, pushing down on my knees for extra leverage. I knew this was where I could make more time over those behind me if I dug in. After a steep descent to the hotel at CP3 I was exhausted, and dehydrated. I took my time here to ensure I had a good drink and topped up the bottles before I moved on.
From CP3 the course followed the ridge of the Malvern Hills before dropping down to the Worcestershire Way. I couldn’t find the first PP just past Pinnacle Hill which was really annoying but as I ran between Jubilee Hill and Perseverance Hill I was stopped by someone, who turned out to be a marshal setting up the PPs. He said I’d just missed one and that he was putting the remaining ones out. I looked back to the hills I’d just scrambled over and thought it would probably take more than 10mins (and more leg damage) to head back, so just moved on. The problem now was I didn’t no whether this marshals word would be enough at the finish or whether the strict 10min penalty would be imposed (it wasn’t), so for the remainder of the race I just had to get my head down and hope I had a big enough lead. In a way you could say it kept me motivated. I remember one peak not having a track at all, so I had to scramble over a bit of scree and then jump over thick grass to get back on track afterwards. To be honest I loved the challenge of running these peaks and hope they marshall them all next year so there’s no escape!
For the final section of the Malvern range we had to circum-navigate North Hill on De Walden Drive. This was a nice level section around the hill on compacted mud, which was a relief to the legs. My knees were messed up at this point from the climbing/fell running. As I approached this section I spotted a runner over my left shoulder going straight over Table Hill, which would have cut the route short by at least a mile. I presumed he was the lead 83M runner, so it didn’t impact on my race. But in the fairness of sport I was really annoyed. I hoped to catch up with him later to mention I saw him take the wrong route and see what he said. Of course it could have been another race, or he got lost so I had to hold judgement back a little just in case.
After running down the final hill and a couple of short road sections I was out on to the Worcestershire Way and only a few miles from CP4. The views were stunning now the weather had improved and I was loving every minute of it. I passed a couple of walkers at this point. I wasn’t sure whether they were doing the 83M or 54M route, but either way they’d be walking through the night. That’s got to be tough. At CP4 I met what I thought was the lead relay team, and then a runner came in behind me. Was he the one I saw on north hill, and where had he been? Well I didn’t know what was going on at that point but knew I’d run hard over the hills and stuck to the course. I couldn’t imagine anyone would have made any ground on me. After putting on a compeed and helping myself to a few snacks and water I was off again.
Obviously the average pace for the race had taken a big hit following the Hills. It had now dropped to 8:25/m moving (8:45/m overall) for 37miles. There were a number of more steep sections to come over the Worcestershire Way that would drop it further to 8:40/m (9:05/m overall). The first of these came at Birchwood. At 39miles came the start of the Suckley Hills (still part of the Malvern Hills). Another short but steep climb of 100m but a welcome change in scenery, running on a softer, muddy surface through woods. I enjoyed this section so much that I ran up the steep sections on my toes and shot down the other side like a lunatic. It wasn’t until I got back on the tarmac at Knightwick (42M) though that the quads and hamstrings tried to escape my body! I managed a 7:45 mile split here but knew I had a stinker of a hill to come at Ankerdine Hill.
In 2010 the route went straight off the road at Ankerdine Farm up a really knee crunching slope to a picnic area at the top of Ankerdine Hill, before coming back down to the same road and then off road down a steep grassy bank. I did this route on my recce. The new, shorter route followed the road a little further, cutting out the highest point and picnic area, but leaving you a bit more exposed on the open road. I went for the original route and wished I hadn’t done so. When I ran back down to the road I realised I’d probably wasted 5mins and a lot of effort. The next section was great fun, running downhill through the Ankerdine Nature Reserve. Although I had to be careful I didnt cramp up. I started to get dehydrated again around this point and there was a strange moment when I couldn’t focus on my GPS tracker and ended up having to come back to the same spot several times having tried numerous directions (a nice little star configuration on my Garmin afterwards).
A few country roads and fields of sheep before reaching Berrow Green. Then at 44 miles I’d reached the final CP(5) at Martley Green where my parents and girlfriend were waiting to pass on some coke and cheer me through. I’d been looking forward to this point all day. It was pretty much the distance I’d run (over a similar elevation gain) in the Brecon Ultra, so I knew I could reach it. The race photographer drove in to Martley just as I was leaving (to the words “he aint waiting for you!” from my Mother, lol). I hadn’t thought about the final 11miles, I’d just focused on getting to mile 44, having a good drink and then trying to zone-out for the final stretch.
A few bumpy roads to follow and each mile started to get longer and longer as I approached the finish. I tried cutting the apex of a few roads to save the odd metre which is quite funny in hindsight. The final two PPs were at the north end of Ockeridge Wood and the exit of Monk Wood. It was somewhere in Ockeridge wood that I tripped over what I believed to be a tree route and went tumbling. Found this quite funny and the surface was nice and soft. I’d done the same towards the end of the Brecon Ultra and put it down to tired and lower lifting of the feet. I scraped the left knee and covered myself in dirt but nothing major. The worst pain was trying to get myself back on my feet again. I was stiff and sore all over. The run through the woods was a welcome relief as it was pretty much on a downhill gradient the whole way. Once I was out the other end I knew I just had to keep turning the legs over for a couple more miles until I was back at Holt Castle. I occasionally looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was following but I would have been surprised because I worked hard on the final section. As I ran down the approach to Holt Castle and into the finish it was very quiet but then I guess this is common in most ultras.
I was extremely pleased to win my first Ultra Trail race on what was a stunning course through the Worcestershire countryside. It certainly made up for a disappointing London Marathon. I felt great throughout, pace and nutrition seemed to be spot on and I didn’t break into a walk once. There were no major bad patches that I can remember. I finished in a time of 8hr9mins so was quite close to my target of <8hrs. Without the small number of navigational errors (or Ankerdine Hill diversion) I would have made it. I beat last year’s course record by 1hr10mins. I really enjoyed the race and would recommend to anyone. Very friendly organiser and marshals. I’m already entered into next years race and, depending on my training regime over the winter, will look to take the time down to 7hr30mins.
My Garmin falls 0.02 short every mile when running xc, and based on others comments on the course, it seems to fall around 55miles (or more if you get completely lost!)
Sun 26 Jun – Worcester Sprint Triathlon
Sun 10 Jul – Challenge Roth (IM-Distance)
Sun 31 Jul – Ironman UK