Wendover Woods 50 is the final race in the four race series that makes up the Centurion Running’s 50 Mile Grand Slam. The format is different to the others in that it is five laps round a convoluted 10 mile course. WW50 is set entirely within the Forestry Commission’s Wendover Woods site near Aylesbury. During the year leading up to this race, I’ve managed to get to the Woods and run 5 or 6 loops, three of those in one hit a few weeks prior to the race. The first time I had no idea where I was, the course seems like it is designed to discombobulate the unprepared runner. By the time I got to race day, I felt like I half knew where I was going, and as usual, the course was expertly marked.
One advantage of the looped course is that you have access to a drop bag every 10 miles, should you wish it. I’d decided to minimise bag faffage by carrying almost everything I’d need with me from the start. The only exception was a long sleeve top that I thought I might need once it got dark. Race registration was efficient as ever, then I had to stand around for what felt like ages, getting chilly in the stiff breeze blowing across the exposed field. Eventually it was time for the Race Briefing, soon followed by a short stroll to the mass start. At 9:30am sharp we were off.
Lap 1 – The one where I go way too fast
One of the many challenges of an ultramarathon is being on the start line, well trained and tapered, full of beans, raring to go, but having to restrain yourself in the knowledge that you have AN AWFULLY LONG WAY TO GO. Yes, well, so full of beans was I that I mostly threw caution to the wind and ran around Lap 1 like a loon. I had a great time! Seeing a couple of runners I know who are usually much quicker than me was a little worrying, but only a little. I got to the mid-way aid station at Hale Lane in what felt like no time at all. I decided to make a very brief pitstop, just grabbing a couple of jam sarnies then getting straight onto hiking up the long drag to Boulevard. All that hiking practice during 2022 certainly paid off. In fact, the WW50 course plays to my strengths in that there a lot of hikeable inclines which I motor up faster than most. The long hike out of Hale Lane pays off, immediately after it is a lovely section, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. This is a mile or two of mostly gentle downhill, very runnable despite some gullies in the chalk caused by heavy rain in the weeks before the race. Sadly that all ends abruptly with The Snake, a long steep climb that really gets the calves singing. The rest of the loop safely navigated, I was back at base in just under 1h53, a good ten minutes faster than I had planned.
Lap 2 – The one where I don’t drink enough
I was efficient at my first visit to Trig Point aid station, stopping for just over a minute – just long enough to refill flasks and grab a few treats. I was aware of having gone a bit quick first time around, so consciously dialled back the pace a touch. My legs felt strong and I wasn’t yet hating the little internal loop that takes you away from and back to Hale Lane aid station a little over half way. In a cruel bit of course planning, you bound down a nice hill and the aid station is right there but no, it might as well not exist, you still have a couple of miles before you can make a pitstop. If I remember right, there are two nasty climbs hidden in this little interior loop, only the second of which (Go Ape) is marked on the course map. The section down from the top of Go Ape back to the aid station is quite nice really, mostly runnable. The weather forecast for the day was excellent – one might even say unseasonable – with plenty of sunshine and warm temperatures in the afternoon. That started to make itself apparent on the second lap. In a foolish repetition of past hydration mistakes, I did a quick “feel” check of my flasks and decided not to refill at Hale Lane, I was sure I had enough to get me back to base. Nuh-uh! I ran out of fluids with a good half an hour of running and some decent climbs still to go. This was tough going and I was parched by the time I got back to Trig with 4h07 on the race clock, having taken 2h14 for Lap 2, twenty minutes longer than on Lap 1.
Lap 3 – The one where I belch loudly throughout
I had been eating reasonably well, little and often, roughly on the half hour mark. I had hula hoops, Yorkie and some Kendal Mint Cake on me, plus double strength Tailwind then whatever I fancied from the aid stations was a bonus. This was often fruit, jelly babies, fruit pastilles and an occasional sandwich. I don’t usually suffer from GI issues on these long races – certainly I have never experienced puking, shits, or just being unable to eat anything that some suffer from. Normally ultras are a mobile buffet from start to finish for me. For some reason I had some discomfort on lap 3 – I’m not sure if it was indigestion, being underhydrated or what, but as well as some mild cramp type pain, I was also burping my head off for most of the lap. Absolute rippers – in more tropical climes I might have attracted some curious Howler Monkeys, or maybe a bullfrog or two. Fortunately, the local fauna were unimpressed, maybe actively repelled! Some mint cake did seem to help, perhaps there’s something in that old saw about peppermint being a good way to calm an iffy tum. I struggled a bit on this lap, it was hot and sweaty work, and I was probably paying for sub-optimal hydration on lap 2. I drank 2.5 litres of fluids! I hiked sections I should have run, just out of sheer can’t be arsed. I wearily stomped up the climbs on the approaches to Trig, getting back to base with 6h40 on the clock, Lap 3 having taken 2h33. I’m getting slower!
Lap 4 – The one where it got dark fast
I treated myself to my first sit down of the race before heading out on Lap 4, just 5 or 6 minutes. I had a cup of coffee and some strawberry cheesecake (thanks Kerry!). I swapped my daft sun hat for a cap, got my head torch out, put on an extra layer and headed out for the penultimate time. Although I had arrived in good light at the end of Lap 3, by the time I left the tent it was pretty gloomy out and in the trees it was dusk. I felt great! I like running in the dark, I’d had a sit down, and I think had recovered from Lap 2’s hydration cock-up. And I’d had coffee. And cheesecake! One way or another, legs somewhat refreshed, I was already having more fun than on Leg 3. By the time I got to Powerline the last remains of daylight were disappearing over the horizon. I jogged along, really beginning to resent the aforementioned dastardly loop around the mid-point aid station. The two big climbs were getting very old and this time around I was stopping for little rests on the way up. I caught up with Spencer at Hale Lane and we hiked up the hill to Boulevard together before pulling slightly ahead on The Snake. Trig Point was re-acquired at just under 9h20 minutes into the race. 2h40 for that lap – slower still. Would I be able to sneak home in under 12 hours? Let’s see.
Lap 5 – The one where I did everything for the last time
After another brief sit down I got going again. If on Lap 4 I was somewhat encouraged by only having to do each hill one further time, on Lap 5 I happily checked each one off for the last time. Good job too, as my steep hill climbing legs were about done by that stage. I hear tell of a 100 mile race on the same course – 10 laps! No way Jose! Five was plenty. I was still moving ok on the runnable sections, at least in the first half of the final lap. By the time I visited Hale Lane for the last time, I was struggling a bit in the running department, but still hiking well. I adopted a scout’s pace approach – 100 paces of running, 50 paces of hiking. In that combination I was still catching people from time to time but probably not quickly enough to scrape under the 12hr mark. One foot in front of the other, the finish line eventually came into view and I jogged over the line at 12h04.
WW50 is a challenging race. The lapped format is mentally difficult and there is a tonne of climb, over 10000ft or 3330m – a lot for a 50 mile race. That said, I mostly enjoyed it – conditions were perfect, the woods were beautiful in autumn colours, it was fun to see familiar faces – running friends – and perhaps best of all, no sign of the injury I picked up back at Ring o’ Fire. Not a peep.
The main goal was to finish the race in one piece and box off the 50 slam. Job done!
My final word is a thank you to the volunteers of all stripes, but in particular to Kerry and Ally who were at the Trig Point aid station from registration all the way to the finish and beyond. They sprung into action every time I arrived, efficiently refilling my flasks then booting me out and on my way as fast as my legs would carry me. Bravo!
That’s me for 2022, I’ll be back soon with Cornish coastal adventures.