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I was really looking forward to doing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks Ultra (Y3PU) this weekend. It’s a race I’d done before, so I knew the course. I’d been training hard for the last 3 months since the Summer Spine, working with Marcus Scotney at White Edge Coaching, and started to see some big improvements in my training performances, and I’d tapered properly and got all my kit, pacing, fuelling and hydration strategies sorted out. I was prepared.
Then, late on Thursday night, just as I had finished all my packing, I received the urgent email from Race Director Stu Westfield. The race was cancelled. Weather forecast was showing thunder and lightning on the hills on the morning of the race, and too much risk to the athletes and support teams. Of course it was the right decision, but I was gutted, and frustrated. I’d tapered and now had nothing to taper for. I went to bed in a bad mood.
Friday morning saw me wake up still in a mood of frustration, with bottled-up energy from the taper that I needed to release. I had a few early morning conference calls that I had intended to do before driving up to Yorkshire, but as soon as they were out of the way I hit the exercise bike in my front room – within 3 minutes I was already at 90% of Critical Power and stayed there for a full hour. Massive new 1 hour PB of 224W. Just shows what a taper can do for you. More work during the rest of the day, and then the treadmill. 60 minutes barefoot, and then 60 minutes of inclines – 20km in total. I was knackered, but at least I feel like I was getting some of the frustration out of my system in a positive way. Meanwhile, I’d also agreed with Marcus that I’d do a 50k training run tomorrow instead of the 70k Y3PU. Perhaps those 3 hours on the Friday were not such a good idea after all …
Start Leigh to Hever Castle (10km)
For the route, I’d chosen a loop that in the past has been run as the Eden Valley 50k Ultra, across the Kent Downs from the Low Weald and Medway Valley up to the escarpment of the Greensand Way. It’s a bit of a National Trust hotspot, with Hever Castle, Penshurst Place, Chartwell, Toys Hill and Limpsfield Common just a few of the landmarks you pass on the way round the circuit, and I’d done most of the route before in sections, as I trained for the Eden Valley race last year (ultimately missing out on it due to catching Covid). The elevation chart for the route had a flattish start and finish, and lots of climbing in the middle section, so I christened it my “Kent 1 Peak Ultra” and set off on Saturday morning for the pretty village of Leigh and the start by the village green.
Although the weather was fine with crystal clear blue skies, the ground was sodden with dew, and from previous runs in the area I knew that there lots of sections with overgrown long grass and trackless farmland, so with the temperature being just above 10 degrees, I decided to wear waterproof socks to ensure that I didn’t have waterlogged feet within a few minutes of starting. The risk of course is that your feet sweat instead and you end up with macerated feet in any case, but as it turned out, it stayed cool enough that this wasn’t a problem, and the ground was certainly so wet that it was the right decision.
The first section, from Leigh to Penshurst Place, is very gentle. Flat, undulating farmland, with relatively well-maintained tracks makes it a pleasant way of easing yourself into the route. For fuelling, I’d taken a couple of flapjacks and Bounty bars with me, as well as Mountain Fuel / Hi-5 salt tabs in my drinks bottles – a good opportunity to test out my new nutrition strategy on a reasonably long run – and I’d also decided to carry a full pack included a folded set of poles, to make it as close as possible to race conditions. With no checkpoints, I’d decided to have a bite and a drink every 5km, and there were cafés at Chartwell and Ide Hill at 28km and 34km respectively that I could use if needed. In no time at all (well, 30 minutes) I hit the slopes that descend towards Penshurst Place and was happy with progress – 6 min/km was my target pace for the first half of the run and I was bang on. No signs of tiredness yet from the heavy day of training yesterday, but my heart rate was much higher than I was expecting, fluctuating between 145 and 160 when I was expecting it to be in the low-to-mid 140s.
From Penshurst Place, the route continues West towards Hever Castle, along undulating trails that pass through a mixture of woods and yet more farmland. The trail in the woods was quite good, with the trees sheltering what was quite a stony path from getting too muddy, but the farmland was much worse, with long wet clumpy grass, freshly ploughed muddy fields and frequently no path to speak of. Still, I reached Hever Castle pretty much right on the hour mark and found that it was heaving – with the Commando obstacle course races that were taking place over the weekend. I weaved past several competitors, whose own 6k or 12k loop appeared to be going in the opposite direction to mine, but soon the trails parted ways and I started the slow turn North that would take the route across the Low Weald and Medway Valley towards the Greensand Ridge. While my heart rate was still suspiciously high, and my calves felt a little tight, everything else was feeling strong, and I had already taken on some food and drink while running.
Hever Castle to Limpsfield Chart (24km)
The next 14km was mentally quite hard. The terrain was certainly not tough, but it felt like an endless series of fields filled either with clumpy long wet grass or ploughed mud, with the occasional electric fence thrown in as well. It felt like that probably because it was like that. So much so that going over a level crossing felt like a real highlight.
Eventually the line of the Greensand Ridge came into view and the incline steepened as I started the long climb up to the woods of Limpsfield Chart. It was now that I started to feel the full effects of Friday’s heavy sessions. As soon as the incline steepened beyond a few percent, I could feel my heart rate shooting up well above 160, and my calves groaning. I hadn’t just burned a few matches the day before, I’d burned the whole bloody matchbox. I did think for a minute about getting my poles out, but I was determined to get round the full 50k today without using them if I could, and slowed my pace to a power hike, occasionally putting my hands on my knees when the gradient steepened to 15-20% or more. It was strange because my legs and hips actually felt quite strong in themselves – it was just that I couldn’t get any energy into them, and my calves were just completely tight and inactive. As the climb flattened out, I was able to break into a jog again, and both the flats and downhills proved no problem at all. It was just that every time I came to the slightest hill, I would be forced back into power hiking mode – a complete contrast to my 20k hilly run last week (on the same terrain around Toys Hill) when I’d been able to gallop up and down all the hills throughout, keeping up a 6min/km pace for the whole 2 hours.
Limpsfield Chart to Ide Hill (34km)
Limpsfield Chart itself does not have any obvious landmarks, but it was only a short while before I came through the woods and found myself at the entrance to Chartwell, former home of Winston Churchill and now a major National Trust attraction. I did think momentarily about stopping for a drink at the café there, but decided to carry on as I know the paths around Chartwell very well and wanted to get through next, hilly section as quickly as possible, before the long descent from Ide Hill down to Weald Village and back to the finish at Leigh.
More power hiking up the relatively innocuous slope behind Chartwell. More fast downhill running down French Street. Power hike again up towards the Toys Hill woods. Mix and match power hiking and running as I make may way through the wooded trails of Toys Hill, hitting the highest point of the course at 234m and enjoying the amazing views through the trees of Bough Beech reservoir and the Low Weald all the way to Tunbridge Wells. Race down from Toys Hill and then slog back up again through the woods towards Ide Hill. Try to keep the HR from going over 160. Collapse in a heap at the Ide Hill café. That was pretty much my next hour.
The view from Ide Hill café in better weather
Ide Hill to Leigh (48km)
I did consider whether to press on without stopping but reflected that (a) this is a training run, (b) it’s meant to be fun and pleasant, and (c) I have an obligation to support local businesses in the current economic climate. OK, I didn’t actually think (c) at the time, rather I just wanted to have a cappuccino and some lemonade, and the Ide Hill café is a fantastic place to sit down for a breather, with some great views of the Medway Valley, and brews a fantastic cup of coffee. There were a few cyclists also stopping, which at least made me not the only lycra-clad person there.
By now I’d done all the main uphills, and while there still some occasional upward slopes, the bulk of the terrain from now on was downhill as the course turned south towards Weald Village, mostly along back roads and trails. My HR was still high, but not hitting the absurd heights of earlier, and I felt a lot more relaxed now as the underfoot conditions also became a good deal easier with more track and road and fewer untracked fields to cross. Mentally I was in a much better space now as well – although I wasn’t going to getting back in 5 hours (my original target), 5½ hours was still pretty respectable, particularly given my efforts yesterday, and it felt as though it was time well spent as I passed through the final stretch of woodland, passed the church and pulled into Leigh Village Green where my car was as I had left it earlier that day.
It’s common knowledge that a large part of the training for ultras involves regular Long Runs, but I’ve always found it hard to push myself to do really long runs on my own purely for training purposes. Normally if I’ve needed to do 50k long runs, I’ve entered into 50k races, as it’s much easier to motivate myself to complete them when I have the added adrenaline, support and camaraderie that comes from participating in a race. Even when you’re running for many hours on your own in a race like the Spine or Northern Traverse (I was alone for virtually the entire Summer Spine this year) you have the knowledge that you’ll meet people at checkpoints and there are other competitors out there that you are racing against. So 50km with no other competitors and no checkpoints was a first for me. And I’m really happy that I did it, even if my preparation was suboptimal. I’m sure that I’ll see the benefits when I do my next Long Run, and it also means that I’m psychologically now much more ready to go out and do more 50k or so solo runs purely for the fun and training benefits they provide. Next time of course, I’ll take it a bit easier the day before!
As courses go, it does feel like a proper ultra – with almost 900m of vertical gain, there’s enough hills to make it interesting and the rest of the terrain is pretty similar to what you find on many other ultras in the UK. Probably the only thing it misses is properly steep, technical climbs and descents, but you’re not going to get these anyway in Kent. It’s a shame that the organisers of the Eden Valley Ultra have not been able to keep it going as an official race, but if anyone is ever interested in having a day out running it with me, I’d be delighted to join them. You can find the gpx trail on my Strava profile.