GUEST POST: Hana Clitherow – Sarsen Trail and Neolithic Half Marathon 2015
Regular contributor Hana Clitherow has sent us the latest update in her year-long project to run thirteen half marathons in 2015. This week she reports from Salisbury Plain, where she took part in the Sarsen Trail and Neolithic Half Marathon…
Two years ago I had a moment of madness and decided that if I ever ran a marathon I wanted to run one where I could cross the finishing line, collapse and possible die somewhere iconic. So I chose the Sarsen Trail and Neolithic Marathon which starts at Avebury and finishes at Stonehenge. I succeeded in running it with my daughter at my side but as the second half of this marathon was hard going for me I didn’t remember much about it. This meant I needed to revisit this event and try the Half Marathon route which also fell in with my 2015 challenge of running 13 in 12 months.
This event is run by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust and consists of many elements that the whole family can get involved with. There are 4 walking distances from full marathon down to a 7 mile walk. You can cycle 30K or 50K, and then you can either run a full or half marathon with a Cani-X event on top of this as well. The marathon route takes you across beautiful verdant rolling hills from Avebury to Redhorn Hill, where the mind can soak up the beautiful vistas and enjoy the moment. Then at Redhorn Hill where the half marathon starts, it’s onto Salisbury plain, with wide open vast areas of what I can only describe as tundra interspersed with dirt tank tracks and ‘green lanes’ where 4×4 vehicles can play. This is army territory with no real shelter from the elements.
So, 2015 saw both myself and ‘Husband who plays golf and also cycles’, enter this event. I select the half marathon [highlight]run[/highlight] (the race info states “This is NOT a race, there are NO prizes, it is a RUN”!) and he selects the 50K cycle. I book the Travelodge near Amesbury at the Countess roundabout off the A303 which is a perfect location to stay at, as it is only 4 miles from race HQ, has free parking and only costs £35 per night when booked well in advance. So a weekend away is sorted.
The weather forecast for the May Bank Holiday weekend and this event isn’t looking too wonderful. We depart Cornwall on the Saturday in heavy rain but arrive in Wiltshire to grey clouds and the odd glimpse of the sun. I’ve booked a table at the Haunch of Venison, a quirky and very old pub in Salisbury for our pre-run/cycle hydration and fuelling and end up having a disastrous meal. Now I can eat almost anything but the chef’s recommendations on this day was obviously an attempt to get rid of the dregs, disguise them as fish cakes, then give them to someone who has never cooked before and turn them into something akin to a mountain bike tyres. I tried very hard to find some good in the two unappetising lumps on my plate but failed and returned the offerings to the waitress telling her I would not be paying for it! So my race fuelling didn’t go too well. I don’t think 1 x G&T, a shared starter of paté and bread, a few chips and two lettuce leaves salvaged from my dinner, washed down with half a bottle of poor quality wine sold at an extravagant price counts as good pre race nourishment?
Sunday May 3rd arrives to a fanfare of heavy rain hitting the tarmac outside our room. I check my weather app, (yes this Old Croc has progressed into the modern world and is now attached to useful information on the World Wide Web) and it suggests that the rain might pass, by 9:30am, but I’m not convinced. This could turn into a swimathon if the rain continues. Noah could be sending out the Ark?
Breakfast consists of two pots of instant porridge which is what I usually eat when staying away in hotels, that don’t include breakfast in their cost. I would never in a months of Sundays, contemplate eating these pots of warm sweet wallpaper paste at home, but my stomach seems to tolerates them on the odd occasion. I have 3 hours in which to digest them so fingers crossed they will sit better than what little I consumed the night before.
The race HQ this year is situated at Old Carter Barracks, a new location for this event, as the new Visitor Centre (etc.) at Stonehenge itself is now not available for this event to use any more. The parking is on a solid surface thank god, as the rain is coming down like stair rods and turning the area into a water park.
We’ve arrive at 8:30 as “Husband who plays golf and cycles” has to register and collect his number and timing chip before he can start his event. The last time he can start his ride (no mass start for the cyclists) is 9:30am. My run doesn’t start until 11.
I stay in our car and watch the heavens empty, saturating anyone mad enough to step out of their vehicle without a full immersion suit on. Husband on the other hand is now having to get his mountain bike and himself ready for the off whilst I start to seriously regret entering this half marathon. The nearest thing to a plus point that I can find, is that I decide that this monsoon will give me the opportunity to test out my new super lightweight waterproof running top with hood to see if it really can withstand the British weather. The label that came with it had a picture of trail runners in the mountains somewhere abroad but didn’t show any rain. Oh well, time will tell and at least I have come armed with my “IQ reducer” as well. For those of you new to my writing my “IQ reducer” is a baseball style running hat which I use to keep the rain out of my eyes. So what is there to worry about????? Being cold wet and up to my ears in mud I think!
As quick as the rain arrived, so it left us. Husband is all kitted up for cold inclement weather and the clouds change from murky black to just grey. I decide to emerge from my cocoon of warmth, take the standard photo of “man with bike”, kiss him farewell and then I head off to check out the portable blue, locally provided, temporary toilets. They have toilet roll and hand sanitiser but they do not have a hook to hang my bag upon. Now if I leave my rucksack style bag on my back, the dangling straps on it may dip into the unknown and I’m not too keen to take that risk. So now I have to try and attach the rucksack to my front as placing it on the floor is definitely not an option either (lots of mud and only mud I hope). I feel like an escapologist in reverse, my balance is altered and the “to sit or not to sit” quandary raises its head. Anyway, let’s just say I managed my ablutions without mishap, and I make my way to the bus pick up area for my onward journey to Redhorn Hill. This is the start and race number number pick up area for the half marathon distance.
[pullquote-right]I converse and the others have to talk to me. There really isn’t any other option as once the bus sets off, they can’t escape.[/pullquote-right]As I’m an “Old Croc” I am never bothered with sitting on a bus with a load of strangers and as we are all held captive for the same reason, conversation is easily made. Well I converse and the others have to talk to me. There really isn’t any other option as once the bus sets off, they can’t escape. There is a lady of a similar age who tells me she ran the London Marathon last weekend and is today running the half with her daughter, a university student. Then there is the young couple who work in London but who have family locally and have arrived with only a black bin liner to keep them warm as they didn’t realise there was a bag drop. Other than that it’s mostly men sat nearby who are keeping their heads down for fear that I may make eye contact. Cowards!
The bus journey takes about 30 minutes along narrow country lanes and on arriving at Redhorn Hill we disgorge out onto an open area of vastness crisscrossed by wide muddy tracks, the odd tree and maybe the odd vehicle unless there is a military exercise on.
Today though, there are two very small marquees which are managing to withstand the howling wind that is blowing and inside are race officials sat wrapped up to the nines, handing out our race numbers with chip timing. This is also the baggage drop off and male changing tent. I cannot see a ladies changing tent, so I decide the gents tent will become a unisex changing one and I join the single male already in there. I decide to get out of my trackster bottoms and expose my legs to the elements, don’t panic though, I am wearing shorts underneath, so hopefully the male next to me isn’t left too traumatised. I keep my long sleeve T, race vest and waterproof top on then go and shelter with a group of other hardy runners by the side of the marquee just out of the wind. I watch the clouds all around us as they tease me. Do I or don’t I run in my waterproof?
I have time to check out the row of about 6 Blue portable water closets that are managing to withstand this windy location. I leave my bag outside on the grass to alleviate any balance issues within and find that they too are of a standard fit, with toilet paper, sanitizer and mud. This now leaves me time to munch on some good old “Kendal Mint Cake” before the start.
The clouds have lightened, the sky is looking less aggressive and the occasional glimpse of blue squeezes through to make my clothing choice very hard indeed. The general consensus amongst the males stood nearby, who are all of the same “Old Croc” age as myself, is that race vest and shorts will do. I opt for long sleeve compression T (tucked into my shorts) as I don’t want any drafty bits with TRC race vest over the top, and place my waterproof and IQ reducer in my bum bag which I attach to me. I have “Road to Trail” running shoes on and I’m about as ready as I’ll ever be for the off.
We, the brave souls who have actually turned up for this race (lots of pre-paid race numbers have been left uncollected at the registration marquee) are called to the start line for a short briefing. The wind is buffeting us, the skylarks are singing and the track ahead looks wide and puddle strewn. We are informed that this year the run is taking a new route so those who have run it before beware!
At 11am exactly, with Garmin activated, we are off, off along a fairly wide track with a surface of wet clay and dry dirt. You have to watch where you put your feet as the track is rutted in places due to military vehicular access and there are puddles galore. Some of the puddles are more like lakes but the gradient is slightly downhill and it remains this way for quite some time. I have a group of men and two females ahead and the rest of the starters are somewhere behind me.
The weather has settled; the wind is still sharp but the sun keeps making an appearance. I’m so glad I have left my coat off, but soon I start to regret the long sleeved T. I will just have to grin and bear it, as trying to remove a skin tight compression top whilst hot and flustered is firstly not elegant and secondly next to impossible without tying myself in knots. I visualise myself running with my head stuck inside the top, and arms locked overhead with a midriff exposed to the world. How awful would that be?
The terrain around us is a vast open space with bleached grass, groups of cattle making their way across it and sky larks merrily singing above. I would like to take in this view so from time to time I glance to my left and right but the track really needs more of my attention as it is turning into a very sticky gloop. I have to look down as it feels as if my shoe laces have come undone, but no it’s the sticky gloop flicking off my shoes and slapping the sides of my legs and covering them in what looks like a mud face pack.
I’m able to hold a reasonable pace but as we have now caught up with some of the walkers I am having to weave around them. They too are covered in this sticky gloop and are starting to remove layers. It isn’t long until I am ahead of the walkers and the run takes on another feeling, a feeling of being alone on the plains and my mind is clearing of all its clutter.
It’s whilst I’m in one of my dream like states that I start to find that my legs feel like they are filled with concrete and the going becomes really taxing. I know I did a 6 mile run on Friday, which normally I don’t do before a half marathon, but surely after only about 4 miles my legs can’t possibly feel like this. I look down to check that no one has stolen my legs and attached an even older pair, only to find I have two brown dinner plates stuck to the base and sides of my trail shoes. I look like one of those flamingoes that has landed on a salt lake to find the salty mud sticks to their feet. I hope my fate is better than theirs, as they end up not being able to fly and therefore get left behind and DIE! I have no option but to try and find a drier line on the trails and get rid of this mud.
Mile 4 and the first water station appears. As usual I run straight pass as race volunteers are handing out plastic cups of water to those in need. I seem to remember their being a portable toilet vestibule there as well. Last night’s bad dinner and excess alcohol maybe starting to take effect and my mind has to concentrate on not being sick.
The bum bag around my waist feels like a millstone and maybe it is not helping the intestinal malaise. I pull the strap forward a tad and it helps a little but I will have to just get my head around this hindrance as there are too many miles ahead to let it interfere with this run. I give myself a pep talk, tell myself it is all self induced and crack on.
The scenery doesn’t change much, but to my left I spot a single military tank nestled in a dip. The cannon thankfully is facing away from the path, and hopefully it will stay that way. I’ve seen the odd spent rifle cartridge squashed into the ground below my feet and signs warning the public not to venture off the path due to unexploded ordnance. A mile or so later I can see about 30 tanks to my left but something tells me these tanks haven’t moved either since I ran past them 2 years ago.
I am having trouble staying upright. The path has vehicular ruts and the surface is very sticky. There is no tread left on the base of my shoes due to the mud sticking to them and as I have never been any good at ice skating let alone mud sliding I’m having to slow to a walking pace. I’m sliding this way and that and if I don’t take some sort of detour I will end up face down in this beige offending substance which may cause much hilarity to others but not to this “old croc”. A girl ahead of me has stepped off the path and onto the grass veldt. She hasn’t activated any unexploded ordnance and disintegrated into a million bits, so I give it a go. Oh my goodness what a relief and my shoes also get a good clean.
The 50K and 30K cycle route now joins the same route that me and all the runners and walkers are on, so although I am running alone I keep getting mud splattered mountain bikers passing which takes my mind off my aching legs and digestive turmoil.
It’s very hard to describe where we have run as the scenery is very similar. The gradient has been mostly kind but as we enter the last 4 miles it provides us with a few uphills. My nausea hasn’t disappeared and the sun is doing its best to make me dissolve and become part of the damp surface. I have to slow to a walking pace as a younger female runner overtakes. I remind myself that this is a run not a race and plod up the hill breaking into a trot at the top.
The final stages of the route dissect a race course and luckily I can hear no pounding of hooves approaching. I have to cross the A345 where the traffic doesn’t want to stop and there is no race marshal to assist. Thankfully the small child on a bicycle near to me has followed his father’s instructions and also come to a halt. A gap in the traffic finally arrives and we all make a dash for it, making it to the other side in one piece. I know the track then went down across a bridge across the river Avon before some more muddy paths.
I can hear voices cheering, the finishing line can’t be far away and then suddenly there is a grass section and a sprint to the finishing line. There are three channels to choose from, one for runners, one for cyclists and one for walkers. I luckily choose the correct one and note the time on the official clock as being 1:46:47 or near as dammit. I smile, become light headed and “Husband who plays golf and cycles” comes over and rescues me.
Everyone receives a medal and a food bag. There are no prizes to be awarded but for me the best thing I am given is a large cup of tea and I soon regain my composure and pounce on another weary defenceless runner and demand he takes our photo.
So all in all:
The race HQ: It was adequate for race number pick up day but the baggage drop/pickup on race day was a disaster zone where anarchy broke out.
Parking: Free, plentiful and this year on a hard surface, so not Glastonbury mud-fest to contend with.
Race HQ: Marquees. One at the Old Carter Barracks where the cyclists registered and one at Redhorn Hill. But in inclement weather there is nowhere to shelter.
Toilets: Portable cubicles that were adequate for the job and without queues at the barracks, but at Redhorn Hill you need to get in early to make sure you are at the start line on time. Don’t rely on hiding behind a tree out on the plains as there aren’t many.
The route: It is either wonderful or monotonous. As I run in Cornwall over hilly terrain with a mix of woodland, lanes and coastal areas as a norm, I found it wonderful but the surface was energy sapping. My legs ached much more after this race than any of the other of the 7 half marathons I’ve completed this year. God knows how the marathon runners felt after they completed the route?
Goodie bag: This is a charity race run by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust and so your entry fee goes to a good cause. You receive a medal and a bag containing sandwiches, an apple, a carton of orange juice and a flapjack. I was happy with this but it also reminds me how lucky we are in Cornwall where we receive some amazing treats. Nowhere else do you receive a pasty and a pint after a race!
Would I run this race again? Not next year but maybe the year after as it is good to be able to make a weekend away with the other half and for him to be involved as well. I suppose I could always revisit the marathon????????????
If you would like to read Hana’s earlier Half Marathon posts, you can find them here:
6/13 Budapest Half
5/13 Tavy 13
4/13 Falmouth Half
3/13 Bideford Half
1/13 Exeter Trails Half