After a spring spent on the road marathon training the trails have been calling all summer. A few of us from club turn 40 next year (well three of us do, Chris is sort of our 40 something groupie 😄) and the Serpent Trail 50k represents our turning 39 challenge in preparation (maybe) for something bigger next year.
The Serpent Trail snakes for 64 miles between Haslemere and Petersfield (only eleven miles apart in a straight line), along a route which links many areas of beautiful heathland, woodland and greensand, with the 50k starting halfway at Petworth. I did know a little about the race in advance, I’d read Ally’s epic blog post about the 2018 100k, plus Alison’s great blog about the 2017 50k, so I kinda knew what I had in store for myself.
A little about the group before I get into the race: Chris is my fellow racing snake, a good friend who I ran my first marathon with last year (South Downs Trail) and who somewhat dragged my ass to the finish when I cramped up at mile 22, he’s a very strong runner who turns into Captain Metronome when he gets going after a good few miles of warming up; Rachel was coming off a stunning 3:14 at London this year but was a bit of a late entrant as the 50k sold out and she had to get a transfer place; and finally Naouele, who was actually the only one of the four of us who’d ever completed an Ultra before and was the one who suggested we enter the 50k as a group this year.
We’d all agreed to run as a group, that was the very ethos from the start, it was important for me that we ran as a group and went at the pace of the slowest runner. Throughout the training I think we’d all had our concerns that we’d hold the group up, for me personally it was the concern of what might happen when I got into the untested waters of 26.3 and beyond (given that I’d suffered from cramp every time I’d run past 23 previously it was a real concern). We’d all manged to recce some of the route over various training runs with Chris recc’ing the entire 50k.
As far as targets went, it was really completion first, the time didn’t really matter. However, that being said we’re all sub 3:30 marathon runners so we’d discussed five hours as being potentially possible for 50k if all went well. Given results from the 2018 event I also had secret hopes of maybe getting one of the ladies onto the podium if we all achieved a sub-five. The weather had other plans!
Registration was open on the Friday night as well as the Saturday morning at the tipis village basecamp which was located at Petersfield rugby club, a quick thank you to Naouele for picking up our registration documents which meant no hassle for Chris and I on the Saturday morning. Buses were due to take us out to the start at just gone nine so we had plenty of time once we’d parked up to sort our kit/numbers out. It was only 9am and it was already getting hot as the sun beat down, the forecast said it’d cloud over later on, turns out not so much! It transpired that one of the buses had been struck down with a flat battery so it ended up being more of a wait for the final couple of buses than expected. The bus delay meant a pushed back start time for the race as we hadn’t even reached the start at the 10am scheduled time.
Getting off the bus our timing chips (which were a SI card on a lanyard) were ‘dipped’ (scanned) for the first time (essentially logging us onto the timing system), we’d have to ‘dip’ our chip at each of the five checkpoints along the route and at the finish in order to track our progress along the route. It was a bit of a different system for us as we’re used to road races with chips on race numbers and timing mats etc. but it all worked fine.
Just time for a quick wee and then it was straight into the race briefing with the four of us getting pretty near the front. The organisers were apologetic about the buses (and the portaloo’s which were missing from the start) and it’s understandably just one of those things that can go wrong with an event like this. No problem really. With a drone buzzing around us filming we were given a quick countdown and then with a blast of an air horn we were off.
Straight off the line we were climbing, we knew from recce’s that the initial couple of miles would be up so we just got into a decent rhythm and then as we funnelled through a kissing gate we were onto the Serpent Trail proper. Just after that as we were running along a guy introduced himself who I’d befriended through Twitter. Dwayne had commented on one of my Serpent Trail recce posts a few weeks earlier, although I knew he was doing the 50k I hadn’t actually expected to bump into him given the 250ish people running the event. Luckily, he’d seen the Portsmouth Jogger vests that the four of us were wearing and tracked me down. We swapped greetings, goals and general chit chat for a mile or so before he dropped back a bit. It was very much his home event as he lives about a five-minute walk from the finish!
The plus side of the climb was the couple of mile descent on the other side, a lovely single track down through the woods, leaping fallen logs and ducking branches. At this stage I was out in front in the group, just trying to keep us ticking over at around nine-minute mileing. It was hot though and even short sharp climbs were strength sapping. We quickly got to Fittleworth and the first checkpoint at 6.6 miles in, ‘dipped’ our chips, filled water bottles and then surveyed the food selection. I’ve been in races before where there have been Ultra like food spreads but I’ve always been racing shorter distances so have never really partaken. Now I had a nutrition plan that I followed (homemade flapjack at miles 5, 15 & 25, shot block at miles 10, 20 & 30, with a Saltstick tablet every 4 miles) which worked for me, but I was still grabbing crisps, and stuffing jaffa cakes into my gob before we exited.
The next seven-mile section was the one that I hadn’t recce’d the whole of. Chris and Rachel had run this when it was wet a few weeks back, given their photo’s of massive path blocking puddles I was glad we’d had a nice spell of warm weather leading up to the race which dried the route up. We did have a couple of “fun” bridges to contend with that only had one hand rail on them, but generally the route was good.
I think we were roughly ten miles in when I started to realise we may have gone off a bit quickly. We went through 10 miles in 95ish minutes (roughly bang on 5-hour pace) but Rachel and Naouele were suffering a bit in the heat, Rachel especially was finding it difficult to drink whilst running so we started to take a few walk breaks to recover. Rachel was trying to get us to leave her and go on but we were having none of it, we started as a team and were damn well going to end as a team! We were out in really exposed heathland now in the midday sun, I was being good and trying to stay hydrated by drinking every half mile or so, just mouthfuls of water from my 500ml soft flask I was carrying, I had a litre of water in my backpack bladder but I used this more as backup. Brilliantly the race was completely cupless so I used the soft flask as my “cup” at the checkpoints too.
Checkpoint two came and went and then we were really into the beautiful middle section of the course which has changing scenery seemingly every mile, from wooded sections, to open heathland with gorse bushes scratching your legs, then large sections of sand, then really dense foliage which almost feels like running through a jungle. It’s crazy really, you’d never know it was there if you didn’t seek it out but it’s truly beautiful. We continued our walk breaks, mostly up the hills, we walked most of the long uphill leading into Midhurst and then started our tradition of running from the brow of the hill.
The checkpoint in Midhurst came at mile 20 but was about a mile and a half later than advertised which I think was a bit of a mental barrier for us. It was becoming more difficult to get in and out of checkpoints quickly, we just couldn’t get enough fluids down us. Midhurst to Dumpford was now a much shorter section of less than four miles, we still walked the up’s but made good progress as it’s relatively sheltered under the tree canopy. It was probably on this section that I started to feel tired, I felt it most in my upper quads, no idea why and not something that’s bothered me before on runs, but they were beginning to feel pretty tired.
We popped out onto the road near Dumpford and ran along a few hundred meters to the final fully stocked checkpoint. We certainly made the most of it, getting cold water poured over our heads by the volunteers and finding a wonderful ice filled coolbox to submerge caps and buffs in. Leaving the checkpoint we knew what was in store for us: a 3-mile undulating road section that never seemed to end. Myself and Chris pushed the pace whilst making sure the girls were still hanging onto us. Towards the end of the road section was where I really started to feel the tiredness kick in, I found myself falling to the back of the group and just hanging on.
At getting on for 27 miles we finally got off the road and back onto the trail, just as we did the leader in the 100k race passed us looking absolutely amazing for a guy at 90+km, no wonder he won the 100k race by over an hour! At this point we started to catch some of the runners in the half-marathon which gave us a little boost and they were extremely gracious in letting us pass on the narrow trail. Just for fun the route now chucked in a few stiles to drag ourselves over and then we snaked through the epic wheat fields where the sneaky camera people lurked.
Only a couple of miles further! We bypassed the final water station as we didn’t need to ‘dip’ our chips there and then it was head down and a push for the line. Roughly the last mile and a half is a big loop back to the rugby club on streets and through a small wooded section, knowing this Chris pushed the pace and we tried our best to hang onto his coattails. We ran a sub-9-minute mile for mile 31 and I was really breathing hard much to Chris’s amusement, we even managed to pass a few fellow 50k’ers.
Breaking the treeline, we were into the long finish funnel. With cow bells ringing and cheers from the crowds of race finishers, supporters and volunteers we joined hands as a team and enjoyed finishing the 50k together.
Over the line it was final ‘dipping’ of chips, medals being placed round our necks and results slips being printed. We had a little group of PJC supporters too which was absolutely lovely: George had cycled up to see us finish, David placed in the top ten of the 10k held slightly earlier; Chris’s wife Cheryl was there to see us home too as well as Naouele’s two kids and her Mum. It was great to see them all and just chill for a while. I was absolutely exhausted; I think the heat just got to me a little bit over the second half of the race and just sapped all of my energy, but on the plus side I’d ate and drank the whole way with no gels needed. Chris though was an absolute machine he was completely fine and playing football with Naouele’s kids, crazy!
We came home in 5 hours 22 minutes, not quite the sub-5 we were hoping for, but I think the heat killed much chance of that. Saying that we were all well inside the top-40 places with Rachel and Naouele being 6th and 7th ladies’ home. Very respectable 50k Ultra debut I’d say.
I’m not sure how much Rachel and Naouele enjoyed being slightly pulled along by Chris and I. Rachel was very much “never again” immediately after but I think on reflection both she and Naouele would run another 50k, but maybe not in the middle of summer and maybe not with Chris and I.
Chris and I have slightly bigger plans. 50k was a good challenge but it’s not quite far enough out of my comfort level, so I think 50 miles and Centurion Running is calling next spring!
I would whole heartedly recommend the race. Everything I heard beforehand was completely true, it really did feel like a race for runners put on by runners. The route is stunning and the job that the Freedom Racing do in the couple of weeks leading up to the race is brilliant: they cut back the trail leaving it in great condition both for the race and other users, plus they add loads of additional signage which really helps as the Serpent Trail markers are tiny and somewhat confusing in their directions sometimes. The volunteers at the checkpoints were wonderful and the greeting that all runners received at the finish, no matter what time of the day (or night!) they crossed the line was fantastic. Plus, free race photography; nifty wooden medals and decent race t-shirts. Definitely one to add to your race calendars!
Until next time …